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Symptoms, Causes, Related Conditions, Questions & Related Topics

Key Points

  • Asthma is a chronic lung disease causing breathlessness and wheezing. It's triggered by inflammation in the air passages and can be managed by avoiding triggers and medication.
  • Asthma can be caused by genetic factors, respiratory infections, allergies, environmental triggers, and specific medications.
  • Asthma presents symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness. Diagnosis involves collecting patient history, physical examination, and possibly additional tests like blood work or X-rays.
  • Asthma treatment involves medications like inhalers or nebulizers for immediate relief, and long-term control medications for daily prevention and control. Non-medicinal methods like regular exercise, weight management, and breathing exercises can help control symptoms.
  • Asthma attacks can be prevented by identifying and avoiding triggers, adhering to medication schedules, monitoring breathing, treating attacks early, and developing an asthma action plan.

What is Asthma?

Shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, and chest tightness: these are all symptoms of asthma, a chronic lung condition that affects more than 26 million Americans, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Asthma is associated with difficulty breathing and is caused by inflammation to the tubes that lead air into and out of the lungs – the bronchial tubes. Sounds scary, right? Thankfully, though, if you or someone you love has asthma, the condition can usually be managed effectively by knowing and avoiding your triggers, and by taking medications to prevent symptoms and control them when they appear.

Asthma May Also Be Known as

  • Bronchial asthma
  • Allergic asthma (this occurs when allergens trigger asthma symptoms)
  • Occupational asthma (caused by inhaling harmful irritants at work)
  • Wheezing syndrome

Top 5 Asthma Causes

1. Genetics

Asthma and allergic diseases often occur in different members of the same families, according to the National Library of Medicine. People are more likely to develop asthma if one or both of their parents have asthma. Evidence also suggests that people with severe asthma are more likely to have higher levels of a protein in the blood called YKL-40 than people without asthma, according to YaleNews.

2. Respiratory Infections

Respiratory infections, including the flu, pneumonia, and the common cold, can cause swelling and narrowing of the airways that can trigger asthma symptoms. Infants and children who suffer from respiratory infections might be more susceptible to asthma due to inflammation and severe damage to developing lung tissue. Wheezing episodes during infancy and childhood are a major risk factor for the diagnosis of asthma by the age of 6, according to the National Library of Medicine.

3. Allergies

Allergic responses happen when the immune system mistakenly views harmless substances, such as dust and pet dander, as threats and causes antibodies to bind to the substances in an attempt to protect the body from the threat. Allergies cause the immune system to release chemicals that trigger reactions such as a runny or stuffy nose, itchy eyes, and asthma. Other allergens that can cause asthma include pollen, pet dander, dust mites, and certain foods, such as peanuts, milk, and eggs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

4. Environment

Certain environmental factors can trigger asthma. These include exposure to certain irritants during infancy and childhood when the lungs are still developing. Allergens, cigarette smoke, air pollution, and bad weather conditions, such as freezing temperatures and high humidity, are other environmental factors that cause asthma, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Exposure to vapors from household products such as bleach and paint thinner might cause asthma, as can vapors at the workplace, such as metal fumes and fumes produced by industrial chemicals, according to the New York State Department of Health. Asthma triggered by workplace irritants is known as occupational asthma.

5. Medications

According to the National Library of Medicine, certain medications can trigger asthma symptoms that can be severe or even life-threatening. You should tell your healthcare professional about all the medicines you take, including prescription and OTC drugs, vitamins, and supplements. Medications found to trigger asthma symptoms include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen), beta-blockers, and ACE inhibitors. People with asthma and who use these medications can talk to their doctors about using alternative medications and treatments that aren’t linked to asthma symptoms.

Possible Symptoms of Asthma

The National Library of Medicine outlines the following as asthma symptoms:

Asthma Diagnosis and Testing

If you have symptoms like wheezing, shortness of breath/difficulty breathing, chest pain or tightness, or coughing, consult a healthcare professional. If you are experiencing these types of symptoms, you can see your primary care provider or a pulmonologist (a healthcare provider who specializes in lung conditions), or visit an urgent care facility or emergency room. When you are having trouble breathing, it’s best to get medical attention as quickly as possible.

According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, the healthcare professional will collect information about your personal history and medical history, and perform a physical exam at your appointment. They may also test your lung function and order other tests like blood work and a chest or sinus X-ray.

Can urgent care prescribe asthma medications?

Although there is no cure for asthma, there are medications that can prevent and control symptoms, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology. Various healthcare professionals can prescribe medication for asthma, including urgent care healthcare providers, primary care physicians, pulmonologists, and other healthcare professionals.

Possible Asthma Treatment Options

Asthma medications are often delivered by an inhaler (a handheld device that delivers medication into your lungs when you breathe in). There are various types of inhalers, including metered-dose inhalers (which release a mist of medicine into the lungs) or dry powder inhalers (breath-activated inhalers that release medicine into the lungs in the form of a dry powder). There are also nebulizer solutions, which are liquid medications that are placed into a machine called a nebulizer. The nebulizer changes the liquid into a mist that is inhaled into the lungs over a period of 10 to 15 minutes.

Below are some examples of drugs used for asthma outlined by the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology.

Quick-relief medications: You may hear these referred to as rescue inhalers. All individuals with asthma should carry a rescue inhaler.

  • Short-acting beta agonists: Commonly prescribed rescue inhalers such as Ventolin (albuterol) can be used to treat asthma symptoms when they occur. They often provide fast relief..
  • Other quick-relief medications include oral or injected corticosteroids.

Long-term control medications: Depending on the severity of symptoms, there are various medications that can be used for long-term control of asthma symptoms. They do not stop an asthma attack. They are meant to be used every day to prevent and control symptoms. Examples include, but are not limited to:

  • Inhaled steroids: Medications like Qvar RediHaler (beclomethasone) are known as the most effective medications for long-term asthma control. An inhaled steroid may be used alone or in combination with other medications.
  • Long-acting beta-agonists: A long-acting beta-agonist medication must always be used with a steroid, never alone. This is often done as a combination medication, for convenience.
  • Combination medications: These medications contain two or three ingredients that work in different ways to control symptoms. Advair Diskus (fluticasone propionate and salmeterol) is a popular brand in this category.
  • Leukotriene modifiers: A leukotriene modifier, such as Singulair (montelukast), is often prescribed to people with asthma and allergies.
  • Theophylline: This medication, often taken as an oral tablet or solution, helps control and prevent asthma symptoms.
  • Biologics: Injectable medications, such as Xolair (omalizumab) or Dupixent (dupilumab), work on the immune system to help control symptoms.

In addition to medications specifically for asthma, your healthcare professional may prescribe or recommend other medication(s) for associated symptoms or conditions such as heartburn or allergies.

Natural Asthma Treatment

Unfortunately, there is no natural cure for asthma. However, if you are interested in trying some non medicinal methods, you can try some of these techniques to help control asthma symptoms - along with taking your medications as prescribed.

  • Regular exercise: Exercise improves both lung health and overall health, according to the American Lung Association. Ask your provider before beginning a new exercise program. And take the weather into account - if the weather is too cold or too hot, you may want to exercise indoors to avoid triggering your symptoms.
  • Weight management: Obesity is not only associated with developing asthma but also with worsening symptoms and poor control of symptoms - as well as increased medication use and hospitalizations, notes the CDC. Consult a registered dietitian for more information about a healthy eating plan that fits your lifestyle.
  • Breathing exercises: There are certain breathing exercises that can help your lung strength and capacity, according to Global Allergy & Airways Patient Platform. You can ask your provider for a referral to a healthcare professional that can teach you how to do these exercises properly.

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Asthma Treatment

  • Have your asthma symptoms improved or become worse?
  • Are there any new triggers contributing to your asthma symptoms?
  • Are you still using your asthma medication as directed?
  • Have there been any environmental changes at home or in the workplace?
  • Do you experience any severe side effects of asthma medication?
  • Does your asthma medication work effectively at reducing symptoms?
  • How often do you use your quick-relief medication?

5 Ways to Prevent Asthma

1. Identify and Avoid Triggers

Asthma triggers are different for everyone depending on the root cause of their asthma. Keep track of your symptoms and asthma attacks so you can identify triggers, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Then take steps to avoid those triggers. For instance, if you find that pet dander triggers your asthma, avoid spending time in environments that expose you to pet dander, such as pet stores and homes where pets live indoors.

2. Use Asthma Medications as Prescribed

According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, asthma medications can improve your symptoms; if your symptoms improve, your medication might be working as intended. Don’t stop taking asthma medications if symptoms improve, and talk to your doctor about any questions you have about your current dosages. Your doctor can discuss or reevaluate your treatment plan as needed and make sure you’re properly using your inhaler and other medications.

3. Monitor Breathing

The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America recommends that you use a peak flow meter to measure and record your peak airflow at least once a day or as recommended by your doctor. Monitoring your breathing can help you determine whether asthma symptoms are worsening so you can talk to your doctor about modifying your treatment plan.

4. Treat Asthma Attacks Early

Being able to detect an oncoming asthma attack can help you avoid a severe or full-blown attack that leads to more serious complications. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America recommends to use your peak flow meter regularly as directed by your doctor, and immediately eliminate the triggers or stop the activity that threatens an attack. Treating asthma attacks as early as possible can help you stay safe, prevent the need for extra medication, and lower your risk for asthma-related complications. Always carry your rescue inhaler with you, so you have it when needed.

5. Develop an Asthma Action Plan

An asthma action plan is a detailed plan that outlines how to use your medications, along with the steps you should take in the event of an asthma attack or emergency. An asthma action plan can help you feel more in control of your condition and could lower your risk for life-threatening complications linked to asthma, including pneumonia, collapsed lung, and respiratory failure, according to the National Library of Medicine.

Frequently asked questions

  • What is asthma and how many people does it affect?

    Asthma is a chronic lung condition that affects over 26 million Americans. It causes symptoms such as shortness of breath, wheezing, and chest tightness.
  • What triggers asthma?

    Asthma can be triggered by a variety of factors including genetics, respiratory infections, allergies, environmental factors, and certain medications.
  • How is asthma diagnosed?

    Asthma is diagnosed by healthcare professionals through a series of tests including lung function tests, blood work, and X-rays.
  • Can asthma be cured?

    No, asthma cannot be cured. However, its symptoms can be managed through medications and non-medicinal methods like regular exercise, weight management, and breathing exercises.
  • How can asthma be prevented?

    Asthma can be prevented by identifying and avoiding triggers, using prescribed medications, monitoring breathing, treating asthma attacks early, and developing an asthma action plan.

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