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What is Asthma?

Asthma is a chronic lung condition that causes the airways to narrow, swell, and produce excess mucus. Many people develop asthma as children, but millions of adults live with asthma symptoms every day.

When you breathe in, the air goes through your nose or mouth, into the throat, then the airways. Oxygen is then dispersed to the body when air reaches the lungs. If a trigger or irritant is present, the airways can become irritated and inhibit breathing. The airways swell and fill with mucus, obstructing airflow.

Asthma Symptoms

Asthma conditions vary from patient to patient. Some people experience frequent asthma attacks, while others experience mild symptoms. Common symptoms include:

  • Chest tightness
  • Chest pain
  • Coughing or wheezing attacks
  • Wheezing when exhaling
  • Trouble sleeping due to asthma symptoms like shortness of breath or coughing

If you have asthma, it is essential to monitor your symptoms. Your condition may change over time, and you may need to schedule an appointment with your respiratory therapist if you notice that:

  • Your symptoms are more frequent
  • You are using your emergency inhaler more often
  • It is becoming increasingly difficult to breathe normally

Causes of Asthma

There is not one sole cause of asthma. For many, asthma is closely tied to allergies. If you have certain allergies, it is likely that your allergies also cause asthma symptoms. The most common type of asthma triggers include:

  • Cold air
  • Physical activity
  • Respiratory infections
  • Airborne allergens like pet dander, dust mites, mould, and pollen
  • Stress
  • Smoke and air pollution
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Certain medications (beta-blockers, aspirin, and ibuprofen)

Asthma Types

If you notice that you are having trouble breathing, your doctor will determine the cause of your symptoms to ensure that you receive the right treatment. The type of asthma you experience may change over time, and you may have more than one.

Allergic asthma: Not everyone who has allergies has asthma and vice versa. Common allergens like pet hair, dust, smoke, pollution, and pollen can cause asthma symptoms. Your allergist may provide an allergy test to determine your triggers. If you are allergic to pollen or live in a polluted area, you may want to check the weather for your area, so you know the pollen count and air quality. If levels are high, you may want to stay inside.

Exercise-induced asthma: Exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB) occurs when the airways narrow due to physical activity. Around 90 percent of asthma patients experience EIB. This condition occurs when the body loses heat, water, or both from the airways during exercise. When you breathe in quickly during physical activity, you inhale drier air than what is in the body. This causes asthma symptoms within a few minutes of beginning exercise and may continue after your workout.

Occupational asthma: If you are exposed to chemical fumes, dust, or other irritants at your workplace, you may be at risk for occupational asthma. Your job might be the cause of your asthma if you noticed symptoms when you changed professions. The following occupations are more at risk of developing occupational asthma:

  • Plastics workers
  • Woodworkers
  • Farmers
  • Bakers
  • Laboratory works
  • Metal workers

Asthma Medications

Once you have an asthma diagnosis, you will likely receive a prescription for a maintenance and rescue (or emergency) inhaler. The goal of asthma treatment is to reduce your risk of asthma attacks. Avoiding your triggers and following your treatment plan is the best way to avoid dangerous complications.

Long-term asthma medications: These prescription drugs are taken daily to keep your asthma under control on a day-to-day basis. If you use your maintenance inhaler as directed, you are much less likely to have an asthma attack. Long-term medications may include:

  • Inhaled corticosteroids: When corticosteroids are inhaled, certain cells in the lungs cannot release substances that cause asthma symptoms.
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  • Leukotriene modifiers The body produces chemicals known as leukotrienes when exposed to allergens. These medications block the action of leukotrienes, reducing symptoms.

Rescue inhalers: If you experience a sudden onset of asthma symptoms, you may need an emergency inhaler. These medications are often used before exercise (if recommended by your doctor). The most common types of rescue inhalers include:

  • Anticholinergic agents: This medication relaxes the airway immediately to ease breathing.
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  • Short-acting beta-agonists The muscles in the lungs and airways are relaxed, opening the airways and allowing more air to enter the lungs.

Other Treatment Options

Medications are the cornerstone of asthma medications, but there are several things you can do to ensure that your asthma remains under control. One of the most beneficial things you can do is reduce your exposure to triggering allergens. You may want to:

  • Reduce pet dander in your living space
  • Clean your house regularly
  • Buy dustproof covers for your mattress and pillows
  • Use washable curtains and blinds
  • Use your air conditioner

If you maintain the health of the whole body, your lungs will also benefit. Regular exercise can strengthen the heart and lungs. If you have exercise-induced asthma, it is important to remain active and ask your doctor how to exercise safely without experiencing asthma symptoms. Being overweight can intensify asthma symptoms, so maintaining a healthy body weight can reduce your chance of other health conditions.