Asthma is chronic lung disease that causes symptoms like chest tightness, wheezing, cough and nighttime awakening. Some asthma is mild, requiring just occasional use of a rescue inhaler. Some asthma is very severe, resulting in emergency room visits, intensive care admissions or even death. The goal of asthma treatment is to give each asthma patient the greatest number of symptom-free days of normal activity on the least amount of medication possible. Many people with asthma don't realize they have it. Sometimes the symptoms creep up so gradually that the person isn't aware of the changes in how they feel, or how they restrict their activity to avoid asthma symptoms – they just accept it as the state of normal for themselves.
The exact cause of asthma is not known but some people are more at risk than others. Asthma risk factors include:
- Family history of allergies or asthma
- Living in a large urban area, especially the inner city
- Breathing in cigarette smoke (including second-hand smoke)
- Exposure to chemicals used in farming and hairdressing, paint, steel, plastics and electronics manufacturing
- Respiratory infections in childhood
- Low birth weight
- Being overweight
Many conditions can mimic asthma, so it shouldn’t be diagnosed based on symptoms alone. Your physician will ask you about your asthma symptoms, triggers and other medical conditions. Your physician will also perform a physical exam and breathing tests to help confirm the diagnosis. If you experience allergies, sinus problems, acid reflux or other problems that aggravate your breathing, other tests and treatments may be needed.
Asthma can suddenly get worse. Exposure to triggers can cause sudden swelling inside the air tubes and muscle tightness around the breathing tubes, known as bronchoconstriction, or an asthma attack. Death can occur during an asthma attack if not treated quickly. Prevention of asthma attacks is very important. This can be done by controlling the swelling and inflammation in the air tubes and avoiding known triggers.
Common asthma triggers
Certain factors cause asthma to get worse. These include:
- Infections caused by viruses or bacteria
- Exercise, especially in cool or dry air
- Irritants such as smoke, fumes and pollution
- Intense emotions like laughing or crying
- Hormonal changes such as pregnancy or monthly menstrual cycle
- Sudden weather or temperature changes
- Allergens like pollen, mold, foods or animals
- Medicines such as aspirin or anti-inflammatory medicines