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What is Asthma?

Asthma is a life-long condition that affects the bronchial tubes.

Once asthma is diagnosed, there are a number of treatments available. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
Once asthma is diagnosed, there are a number of treatments available.

Asthma is a chronic condition that affects the bronchial tubes or airways -- the tubes that bring oxygen to the lungs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), asthma is the most common long-term disease in children, though adults may suffer from asthma as well. Asthma causes the airways to become swollen, sore and sensitive to any irritant or allergen. The airways react to irritation by narrowing, which makes it harder to bring air to the lungs. That, in turn, causes wheezing, coughing and chest tightness, making it very hard to breathe.

Asthma Attack Symptoms

Asthma is a life-long condition. Symptoms can be minor, with just a little bit of wheezing or coughing, or can progress to life-threatening levels. Often, asthma sufferers will notice that symptoms are worse at night or in the early morning, and are marked by fits of coughing.

Asthma symptoms notably increase during an attack when the airways react by producing more mucus than usual. This further narrows the airways and compromises breathing. Asthma attacks sometimes can be so severe that they prevent oxygen from reaching the vital organs. The lack of oxygen can have devastating effects on the body, including death in an extreme attack.

Asthma Causes

The causes of asthma are unknown, and there is no cure for the condition. There are, however, several known triggers of the disease, including cockroaches and their droppings, dust mites, tobacco smoke, air pollution, pet dander, mold, strenuous exercise and strong emotional response to stress.

Asthma can be managed successfully with a combination of medicine and lifestyle changes. The first step is to identify the symptoms of asthma, which include shortness of breath, persistent cough, wheezing, a whistling noise when breathing that is usually more pronounced when exhaling; and coughs or wheezing that are worsened by other conditions, such as a cold or the flu.

Diagnosing Asthma

If asthma is suspected, a doctor can perform a series of tests to diagnose it, though reaching the correct diagnosis can be difficult because individuals experience the range of symptoms and severity differently. Tests to diagnose asthma include spirometry, a test that determines the narrowness of the airways by measuring the strength and speed of exhalation after a deep breath; peak flow test, which is performed with a simple meter that can detect airflow, even at home, and can be helpful in predicting an attack; methacholine bronchial challenge, in which an irritant (methacholine) is deliberately inhaled to see if the airways react in a way that is consistent with asthma; and a nitric oxide test, which measures the level of nitric oxide in the breath (high levels can be an indicator of asthma).

Asthma Medications

There are two basic types of medication that are used to treat asthma. Quick relief medicines, such as inhalers, provide immediate treatment during an asthma attack, while long-term medications are used to decrease and prevent symptoms.

In addition, it's important to make lifestyle changes to avoid known asthma triggers. Getting enough exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, and avoiding heartburn or acid reflux triggers, which can exacerbate asthma symptoms, can help as well.

Medical advice should be sought right away if symptoms worsen. Because asthma can change over time, it's important to work with a doctor to adjust treatment plans regularly to manage this condition.

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