Asthma is a condition in which your airways narrow and swell and produce extra mucus. This can make breathing difficult and trigger coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath.
For some people, asthma is a minor nuisance. For others, it can be a major problem that interferes with daily activities and may lead to a life-threatening asthma attack.
Asthma can’t be cured, but its symptoms can be controlled. Because asthma often changes over time, it’s important that you work with your doctor to track your signs and symptoms and adjust treatment as needed.
Symptoms of Asthma
Asthma symptoms range from minor to severe and vary from person to person. You may have infrequent asthma attacks, have symptoms only at certain times — such as when exercising — or have symptoms all the time.
Asthma signs and symptoms include:
Shortness of breath
Chest tightness or pain
Trouble sleeping caused by shortness of breath, coughing or wheezing
A whistling or wheezing sound when exhaling (wheezing is a common sign of asthma in children)
Coughing or wheezing attacks that are worsened by a respiratory virus, such as a cold or the flu
Signs that your asthma is probably worsening include:
Asthma signs and symptoms that are more frequent and bothersome
Increasing difficulty breathing (measurable with a peak flow meter, a device used to check how well your lungs are working)
The need to use a quick-relief inhaler more often
For some people, asthma symptoms flare up in certain situations:
Exercise-induced asthma, which may be worse when the air is cold and dry
Occupational asthma, triggered by workplace irritants such as chemical fumes, gases or dust
Allergy-induced asthma, triggered by particular allergens, such as pet dander, cockroaches or pollen
Causes of Asthma
It isn’t clear why some people get asthma and others don’t, but it’s probably due to a combination of environmental and genetic (inherited) factors.
Exposure to various substances that trigger allergies (allergens) and irritants can trigger signs and symptoms of asthma. Asthma triggers are different from person to person and can include:
Airborne allergens, such as pollen, animal dander, mold, cockroaches and dust mites
Respiratory infections, such as the common cold
Physical activity (exercise-induced asthma)
Air pollutants and irritants, such as smoke
Certain medications, including beta blockers, aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) and naproxen (Aleve)
Strong emotions and stress
Sulfites and preservatives added to some types of foods and beverages, including shrimp, dried fruit, processed potatoes, beer and wine
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a condition in which stomach acids back up into your throat
Menstrual cycle in some women
A number of factors are thought to increase your chances of developing asthma. These include:
Having a blood relative (such as a parent or sibling) with asthma
Having another allergic condition, such as atopic dermatitis or allergic rhinitis (hay fever)
Being a smoker
Exposure to secondhand smoke
Having a mother who smoked while pregnant
Exposure to exhaust fumes or other types of pollution
Exposure to occupational triggers, such as chemicals used in farming, hairdressing and manufacturing
Exposure to allergens, exposure to certain germs or parasites, and having some types of bacterial or viral infections also may be risk factors. However, more research is needed to determine what role they may play in developing asthma.
Asthma complications include:
Symptoms that interfere with sleep, work or recreational activities
Sick days from work or school during asthma flare-ups
Permanent narrowing of the bronchial tubes (airway remodeling) that affects how well you can breathe
Emergency room visits and hospitalizations for severe asthma attacks
Side effects from long-term use of some medications used to stabilize severe asthma
Proper treatment makes a big difference in preventing both short-term and long-term complications caused by asthma.
Asthma is classified into four general categories:
|Signs and symptoms
|Mild symptoms up to two days a week and up to two nights a month
|Symptoms more than twice a week, but no more than once in a single day
|Symptoms once a day and more than one night a week
|Symptoms throughout the day on most days and frequently at night
Treatment and Drugs
Prevention and long-term control are key in stopping asthma attacks before they start. Treatment usually involves learning to recognize your triggers, taking steps to avoid them and tracking your breathing to make sure your daily asthma medications are keeping symptoms under control. In case of an asthma flare-up, you may need to use a quick-relief inhaler, such as albuterol.
The right medications for you depend on a number of things, including your age, your symptoms, your asthma triggers and what seems to work best to keep your asthma under control.
Preventive, long-term control medications reduce the inflammation in your airways that leads to symptoms. Quick-relief inhalers (bronchodilators) quickly open swollen airways that are limiting breathing. In some cases, allergy medications are necessary.
Long-term asthma control medications, generally taken daily, are the cornerstone of asthma treatment. These medications keep asthma under control on a day-to-day basis and make it less likely you’ll have an asthma attack. Types of long-term control medications include:
Inhaled corticosteroids. These anti-inflammatory drugs include fluticasone (Flovent HFA), budesonide (Pulmicort Flexhaler), flunisolide (Aerobid), ciclesonide (Alvesco), beclomethasone (Qvar) and mometasone (Asmanex).
You may need to use these medications for several days to weeks before they reach their maximum benefit. Unlike oral corticosteroids, these corticosteroid medications have a relatively low risk of side effects and are generally safe for long-term use.
Leukotriene modifiers. These oral medications — including montelukast (Singulair), zafirlukast (Accolate) and zileuton (Zyflo) — help relieve asthma symptoms for up to 24 hours. In rare cases, these medications have been linked to psychological reactions, such as agitation, aggression, hallucinations, depression and suicidal thinking. Seek medical advice right away for any unusual reaction.
Long-acting beta agonists. These inhaled medications, which include salmeterol (Serevent) and formoterol (Foradil, Perforomist), open the airways. Some research shows that they may increase the risk of a severe asthma attack, so take them only in combination with an inhaled corticosteroid. And because these drugs can mask asthma deterioration, don’t use them for an acute asthma attack.
Combination inhalers. These medications — such as fluticasone-salmeterol (Advair Diskus), budesonide-formoterol (Symbicort) and mometasone-formoterol (Dulera) — contain a long-acting beta agonist along with a corticosteroid. Because these combination inhalers contain long-acting beta agonists, they may increase your risk of having a severe asthma attack.
Theophylline. Theophylline (Theo-24, Elixophyllin, others) is a daily pill that helps keep the airways open (bronchodilator) by relaxing the muscles around the airways. It’s not used as often now as in past years.
Quick-relief (rescue) medications are used as needed for rapid, short-term symptom relief during an asthma attack — or before exercise if your doctor recommends it. Types of quick-relief medications include:
Short-acting beta agonists. These inhaled, quick-relief bronchodilators act within minutes to rapidly ease symptoms during an asthma attack. They include albuterol (ProAir HFA, Ventolin HFA, others), levalbuterol (Xopenex) and pirbuterol (Maxair). Short-acting beta agonists can be taken using a portable, hand-held inhaler or a nebulizer — a machine that converts asthma medications to a fine mist — so that they can be inhaled through a face mask or a mouthpiece.
Ipratropium (Atrovent). Like other bronchodilators, ipratropium acts quickly to immediately relax your airways, making it easier to breathe. Ipratropium is mostly used for emphysema and chronic bronchitis, but it’s sometimes used to treat asthma attacks.
Oral and intravenous corticosteroids. These medications — which include prednisone and methylprednisolone — relieve airway inflammation caused by severe asthma. They can cause serious side effects when used long term, so they’re used only on a short-term basis to treat severe asthma symptoms.
If you have an asthma flare-up, a quick-relief inhaler can ease your symptoms right away. But if your long-term control medications are working properly, you shouldn’t need to use your quick-relief inhaler very often.
Keep a record of how many puffs you use each week. If you need to use your quick-relief inhaler more often than your doctor recommends, see your doctor. You probably need to adjust your long-term control medication.
Allergy medications may help if your asthma is triggered or worsened by allergies. These include:
Allergy shots (immunotherapy). Over time, allergy shots gradually reduce your immune system reaction to specific allergens. You generally receive shots once a week for a few months, then once a month for a period of three to five years.
Omalizumab (Xolair). This medication, given as an injection every two to four weeks, is specifically for people who have allergies and severe asthma. It acts by altering the immune system.
Allergy medications. These include oral and nasal spray antihistamines and decongestants as well as corticosteroid and cromolyn nasal sprays.