Have you or anyone you know ever been diagnosed with asthma? Rest assured, you are not alone—approximately 21.3 million adults in the United States (nearly 9 percent) have been told at some point in their lives that they have the disease. Asthma is even more prevalent in children—nearly 9 million individuals under the age of 18 (12 percent) have been diagnosed with asthma, making it the most common chronic disease among children today.
Unfortunately, researchers aren’t sure what causes asthma to develop in the ﬁrst place; but, by recognizing the symptoms associated with asthma and consulting your physician if you experience any of them, you can easily determine whether or not you have the disease. And if your doctor does tell you that you have asthma, relax—although there is no known “cure,” you can control the effects of the disease by knowing the early warning signs of an asthma attack, avoiding things that might trigger an attack in the ﬁrst place, and following your doctor’s advice. By taking these precautions, most people with asthma typically enjoy a healthy, active, and normal life.
What Is Asthma?
Asthma is a disease of the lungs in which a person’s airways swell or tighten, restricting that person’s air-ﬂow and making it difﬁcult for him or her to breathe. Common symptoms experienced by asthma sufferers include coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness or pressure. Although someone with asthma may experience these and other symptoms at any time, most of them typically surface when a per-son breathes in something or does something that “triggers” an asthma attack.
What Happens During an Asthma Attack?
An asthma attack occurs when some-one with asthma experiences a sudden worsening of asthma symptoms. During an attack, the sides of the airways in the lungs become inﬂamed and swollen, muscles around the airways tighten, and less air passes in and out of the lungs. Excess mucus also forms in the airways, clogging them even more.
In addition to the common symptoms typically experienced by asthma sufferers, other symptoms during an attack may include
- very rapid breathing,
- tightened neck and chest muscles, called retractions,
- difﬁculty talking,
- feelings of anxiety or panic, and
- pale, sweaty face.
The frequency of asthma attacks differs from person to person. You may go for long periods without experiencing any symptoms at all, and then suddenly have an attack because you were exposed to certain triggers or because you overdid things while exercising. Or, you may experience symptoms more frequently and regularly.
How long asthma symptoms last during an attack and the severity of those symptoms also vary from person to person. Mild asthma attacks are more common and usually last only a few minutes; however, even a mild attack can become a serious—and potentially life-threatening—issue if not addressed quickly or treated properly. Therefore, it’s important for you to recognize and treat even the mildest symptoms as quickly as possible.
What Are Some of the Things That Trigger an Attack?
Some of the most common asthma triggers include the following:
- Illness (colds, ﬂu, bronchitis, sinus infections, or upper respiratory infections)
- Inhaled allergens (tree, grass, and weed pollens, mold, animal dander, dust mites, cockroach particles)
- Medications (aspirin and other anti-inﬂamma-tory drugs such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn), ketoprofen (Orudis), and beta-blockers used to treat migraines, heart disease, high blood pressure, and glaucoma)
- Food and food additives
- Strenuous exercise
- Environmental irritants (air pollution, occupational dust or vapors, tobacco smoke, smoke from wood-burning appliances or ﬁre-places, perfumes, cleaning agents)
- Weather (cold air, extreme changes in temperature and humidity)
- Strong emotions (anxiety, stress, anger; crying, yelling, laughing hard)
Keep in mind that reactions to these triggers are different for each per-son—certain triggers may be harmless to some people, but they may cause you to have an asthma attack. Recognizing and avoiding your speciﬁc triggers will go a long way toward reducing the frequency and severity of your attacks.
How Can I Reduce the Risk of Having an Attack?
Here is a list of basic “dos and don’ts” that will make living with asthma easier and reduce your risk of having an at-tack. Keep in mind that this list is not inclusive—talk with your doctor if you have any questions or concerns.
- Vacuum and dust often.
- Use a HEPA ﬁlter to help remove allergens, dust, pet dander, and pollen from the air.
- Use airtight mattress, box spring, and pillow covers.
- Wash bed sheets and favorite stuffed toys weekly with a quality allergen-reducing detergent.
- Bathe pets weekly.
- Replace carpets with hard surfaces if possible.
- Get tested for allergies to identify asthma sources.
- Allow children with asthma to have more control in managing their asthma when possible. This will help them feel more in control of their asthma.
- Allow children with asthma to participate as much as possible in normal activities for their age.
- Educate yourself or your child about asthma in order to develop a better sense of control over the disease.
- Contact your doctor if you are concerned or your normal medications don’t seem to be working.
- Let pets on your bed or in the bedroom.
- Use down comforters or feather pillows.
- Smoke if you are an asthma sufferer or are around an asthma sufferer.
- Open windows on days with a high pollen count.
- Work or play in areas prone to mold, like gardens or piles of leaves.
- Work or play outside in afternoons when pollen counts tend to peak.
- Treat asthma sufferers differently because of the condition.
- Panic during asthma attacks. This will only make the problem worse. This point is especially important for parents of asthmatic children—if you panic during your child’s asthma attack, he or she is much more likely to panic as well.
Are There Any Signs to Warn Me That I Might Have an Attack Soon?
Yes, these warning signs typically occur before the onset of the more common asthma symptoms:
- Frequent cough, especially at night
- Losing your breath easily or shortness of breath
- Feeling very tired or weak while exercising
- Wheezing or coughing after exercise
- Feeling tired, easily upset, grouchy, or moody
- Decreases or changes in lung function as measured on a peak ﬂow meter
- Signs of a cold or allergies (sneezing, runny nose, cough, nasal congestion, sore throat, headache)
- Trouble sleeping
While these warning signs aren’t usually severe enough to stop you from going about your daily activities, recognizing them can help stop an asthma attack or prevent one from getting worse. Remember that the severity of an asthma attack can escalate rapidly, so it’s important to treat these symptoms as soon as you recognize them.
How Do I Even Know If I Have Asthma?
Asthma can be difﬁcult to diagnose, especially in children under 5 years old. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms or early warning signs, schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider as soon as possible.
During your visit, your healthcare provider in trying to diagnose asthma will ask you questions about coughing, especially coughing at night, and whether breathing problems are worse after physical activity or during a particular time of year. Providers will ask about other symptoms, such as chest tightness, wheezing, or colds lasting more than 10 days, and they will also ask about your family history of asthma, allergies, and other breathing problems, and your home environment.
Your healthcare provider also may test your lung function using a spirometer, a piece of equipment that measures the largest amount of air you can exhale after taking a very deep breath. Airﬂow can be measured before and after you use an asthma medication.
How Do I Treat My Asthma?
You can control your asthma and avoid an attack by taking any medications that have been prescribed by your doctor and by avoiding the triggers that can cause an attack.
Medicine for asthma is different for each person. It can be inhaled or taken as a pill and comes in two types—quick relief and long-term control. Quick- relief medicines control the symptoms of an asthma attack. If you are using your quick-relief medicines more and frequently, you should visit your health-care provider to change your asthma management plan. Long-term control medicines make you have fewer and milder attacks, but they don’t help you if you’re having an attack.
As with most medications, asthma medicine can have side effects. Most of these are mild and go away on their own. Still, it’s important for you to ask your doctor about the side effects of your medicines.
The important thing to remember is that you can control your asthma. With your doctor’s help, make your own “asthma action plan” so you know what to do based on your own symptoms; then, decide who should have a copy of your plan and where he or she should keep it. Also, remember to take your long-term control medicine even if you aren’t experiencing any symptoms, and remember to remove the triggers in your environment that you know will make your asthma worse.
Who Can I Contact for Additional Information?
There is a wealth of information and support available to those suffering from asthma. For additional information, visit any or all of the following Web sites.
National Organizations and Agencies
State Organizations and Agencies
Other Asthma-Related Links
Prepared by S. William Hessert Jr. of the Pennsylvania Ofﬁce of Rural Health, in consultation with Marilyn Corbin, associate director of extension and state program leader for children, youth and families. Reviewed by Dr. William Curry, Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, and Elise Gurgevich, Penn State Nutrition Links.