What you need to know about asthma

Your airways are responsible for carrying air into and out of your lungs, but what happens when they don’t function properly? Asthma, a chronic condition that affects about 24 million Americans and Canadians, constricts the airways, preventing air from reaching the lungs and causing uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous symptoms.

For some, asthma symptoms are an inconvenience, but for others it causes life-threatening attacks that can interfere with everyday life.  

Asthma triggers:

Someone with asthma may develop sensitivities to things around them, which can trigger asthma symptoms or attacks. During an asthma attack, the muscles around the airways contract, reducing a person’s ability to breathe properly and causing symptoms like coughing and wheezing.

These “triggers” vary from person-to-person, but luckily, many of them can be avoided. Asthma triggers include: Tobacco smoke; respiratory infections; exercise; a change in weather; allergens (pollen, pets, mold, etc.); intense crying or laughing; medications, and irritants (cleaning products, pollution, perfumes, etc.)

Some individuals experience asthma flare-ups in certain places, like in the gym, at work and outdoors. Exercise-induced asthma may happen more frequently in cold weather; occupational asthmatics are sensitive to chemical smells, gas or dust; and those with allergy-induced asthma should be wary of airborne substances like mold spores, pet dander and pollen.

Asthma symptoms:

There are several symptoms that are characteristic of an asthma attack, some of which may signal a serious medical emergency. Signs and symptoms of asthma include chest pain, shortness of breath, wheezing when exhaling, coughing attacks and trouble sleeping due to symptoms. 

If your asthma symptoms become more frequent or bothersome, your difficulty breathing worsens or you need to use your quick-relief inhaler more often, it may be an indication that your asthma is getting worse.

Asthma can be life threatening, so seek emergency medical treatment if shortness of breath is rapidly worsening, there is no improvement after using your inhaler or you experience shortness of breath during minimal physical activity.  

Diagnosis and treatment:

To diagnose asthma, your healthcare provider will review your symptoms, medical history and family history before performing a physical exam. During the exam, your provider will listen to your heart and lungs. Your provider may also order breathing, blood and allergy tests, and chest x-rays. The results should tell your healthcare provider whether or not you have asthma or can help identify other conditions that may be contributing to your symptoms.   

The first step in controlling asthma is avoiding your triggers, but that’s not always possible. Individuals with asthma should work with their healthcare provider to find the best treatment regimen. Your provider may prescribe long term asthma control medications that are taken every day to control symptoms and prevent attacks, along with quick-relief medications taken for short-term relief of symptoms and possibly medications for allergy-induced asthma to reduce the body’s sensitivity to allergy triggers.