Asthma affects 26 million people in the United States, with 7 million of them being children. Asthma is a condition in which the airways become inflamed, obstructing airflow and making it difficult to breathe. Asthma is primarily treated via inhalers which help to prevent inflammation and to relax the airways.
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Written by Dr Kimberly Langdon, MD
Information last reviewed 06/21/19
Asthma is a common disease, affecting millions of people in the United States. It is characterized by difficulty breathing, wheezing, cough, sputum production, and tightness in the chest. Asthma is caused by an inflammation of the airways which impedes airflow. This is usually triggered by allergens found in the house and outside such as dust mites and pollen. Exercise and drug side effects can also trigger asthma attacks. Asthma can be treated by both reliever and steroid inhalers. Reliever inhalers are used to alleviate the symptoms during an asthma attack, whereas steroid inhalers - also known as Preventers - are taken daily to reduce the chances of an asthma attack occurring.
Genetics can make you more likely to develop asthma. However, regular exposure to allergens i.e. dust, cigarette smoke and certain workplace materials i.e. chemicals can cause the first symptoms of asthma to develop. If you have asthma the exposure to certain allergens or situations may cause you to have an asthma attack or to experience asthmatic symptoms. Asthma triggers include:
If you have had any of the following conditions, you may be more likely to experience asthma:
Signs and symptoms of asthma include the following:
If someone experiences these symptoms, they may be having an asthma attack or there may be some other obstruction to their airway. If they are asthmatic, you should help them to take their inhaler. If they are not asthmatic or if their symptoms do not resolve you should seek emergency medical attention.
A diagnosis of asthma is made after establishing the following:
A doctor will ask the patient to describe their symptoms to establish if they correlate with the symptoms that would be expected in asthma. Following this, a spirometry test should be done to measure the change in airflow obstruction. Spirometry involves breathing into a tube before and after being given some medication to relax the airways.
Other tests may also be done to confirm an asthma diagnosis:
Evidence suggests that asthma is increased in children who experience the following events:
The National Asthma Education and Prevention Program recommend that asthma is monitored closely. This is because asthma can vary over time. When you first start treatment for asthma, your doctor should follow-up with you every 2-6 weeks to ensure that your treatment is effective. After this, your doctor should follow-up with you every 1-6 months to check that you are on the best medication for you. In your follow-up appointments, your doctor will check that you understand the symptoms of an asthma attack, that you know how to avoid flare-ups and that you use your inhaler properly. They may also talk to you about controlling environmental factors that may trigger your asthma and changes to your treatment plan.
Asthma is managed through medications that relieve or prevent asthma attacks. Often the first treatment you are prescribed will be a Reliever inhaler such as Ventolin or Salamol. This contains a bronchodilator, which means that it will widen and relax your airway when you take it. This is designed to be taken when you begin to experience asthmatic symptoms, as and when you need it.
Asthma is managed using a stepwise therapy method. This means that the first goal is to stabilize your symptoms. Then different medications can be added or removed and your dosages can be adjusted to the severity of your symptoms or to minimize any side effects.
If your asthma is more severe, or if you have been unable to manage your asthma using just Reliever inhalers, you may also be prescribed a Preventer inhaler. Preventer inhalers contain steroids, which help to protect you from an asthma attack occurring in the first place. Preventer inhalers should be taken daily to prevent asthma attacks.
If your asthma symptoms are not controlled by using both a Reliever and a Preventer inhaler, you may be prescribed a combination inhaler such as Seretide or Symbicort. These inhalers combine ingredients from Reliever inhalers and Preventer inhalers. They are also taken every day and they help to manage your asthma symptoms and to prevent asthma attacks.
As part of your asthma treatment, it may be recommended that you avoid allergens that might trigger your asthma. Skin testing or lab tests should be done to assess your sensitivity to different allergens. This will help you to identify potential triggers and how you can avoid them. Some of the methods to avoid allergen exposure are listed here:
Yes, people can die from an asthma attack. It is always important to get treatment as early as possible, because an asthma attack can reach a point where it is impossible to treat. If you are with someone during an asthma attack, help them to take their asthma inhaler. If they have more than one inhaler, you should use the blue Reliever inhaler (Ventolin or Salamol). If their symptoms do not resolve, you should seek emergency medical attention.
Reliever inhalers, such as Ventolin or Salamol, are taken when you are experiencing asthmatic symptoms. They work by relaxing and widening the airways, making it easier to breathe. If you use your Reliever inhaler regularly, your doctor may prescribe you a Preventer inhaler as well. Preventer inhalers contain steroids which help to prevent the chances of you experiencing an asthma attack. It is important that you remember to take your Preventer inhaler every day, to avoid an asthma attack.
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