Asthma is a condition in which the lungs and air passages become inflamed and constricted, interfering with normal breathing. During the first stage of an asthmatic response, inhaled allergens or other irritants cause the airways to constrict. During the second stage, an inflammatory response causes the airways to swell, and fill with thickened, sticky mucus. During an attack, patients have increasing difficulty in breathing, and usually make the wheezing sound typically associated with asthma. Although life-threatening, asthma can usually be well-controlled with medication.
Causes of Asthma
The specific causes of asthma are not known, but it is believed to result from a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Asthma attacks can be precipitated by the following:
- Allergens (such as pollen or animal dander)
- Respiratory infections
- Cold air
- Physical activity
- Food allergies
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Air pollutants
Asthma can begin at any age. Some people are asthmatic as infants, and some develop asthma as adults.
Symptoms of Asthma
Symptoms of asthma include the following:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain or tightness
- Coughing or wheezing
- Trouble sleeping due to coughing
- Whistling sound when exhaling
For some people, asthma is a constant daily problem. For others, attacks occur only in response to particular triggers.
Diagnosis of Asthma
In order to diagnose asthma, the pulmonologist first performs a thorough physical examination, and takes a complete medical and family history. Evidence of allergies, dermatological as well as upper respiratory, is noted. Diagnostic tests include the following:
- Spirometry (lung function test)
- Allergy tests
- Tests for acid reflux
- Tests for sleep apnea
- Tests for vocal-cord dysfunction
- Chest X-ray
- Electrocardiogram (EKG)
The spirometry test is typically administered before and after asthma medication is given. If the patient's breathing improves with the medication, it is a good indication that asthma is the problem.
Asthma is difficult to diagnose in young children. Many children wheeze during upper-respiratory infections when they are young and their airways are narrow, but outgrow the condition as their airways enlarge during normal growth. Asthma is more likely to be suspected if one or both of the child's parents have asthma, or if the child has other allergies, particularly eczema. Because it is difficult to administer lung-function tests to a young child, asthma medication is sometimes prescribed on a trial basis to see if the child's symptoms improve.
Treatment of Asthma
While asthma is a serious condition with no cure, it can usually be well-managed through long-term medications that help to prevent attacks or treat symptoms. Asthma can be treated by inhaled, as well as oral, medications, usually corticosteroids. Rescue inhalers containing albuterol (a bronchodilator) can be used during attacks; they provide immediate relief. Once triggers are identified, patients can usually avoid them, or be prepared to treat symptoms as soon as they occur.