Asthma is a condition in which your airways narrow, swell and produce extra mucus. You may have trouble breathing, make a whistling sound (wheezing) and cough a lot when trying to push out the extra mucus. The severity of the disease varies from mild to severe and depending on the allergen that triggers your reaction; you may have seasonal or round the year flare-ups.
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 are worsened by a respiratory virus, such as a cold or the flu.
No one really knows the cause of asthma. The triggers, however, are well documented and include allergens like pollen, harmattan weather, food and food additives, excessive exercise, heartburn, smoke from tobacco or from burning fuels such as kerosene and firewood, lung infections, sinusitis, and some medicines.
The following are risk factors for asthma:
- Family history of allergic conditions.
- Personal history of hay fever (allergic rhinitis).
- Viral respiratory illness, such as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), during childhood.
- Exposure to cigarette smoke.
- Exposure to air pollution or burning biomass.
Asthma triggers are different from person to person and can include:
- Airborne substances, such as pollen, dust mites, mould spores, pets' skin flakes or particles of cockroach waste.
- Respiratory infections, such as the common cold.
- Physical activity (exercise-induced asthma).
- Cold air.
- 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.
- Sulphites 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.
See your doctor:
- If you think you have asthma. If you experience any of the signs or symptoms of asthma.
- To monitor your asthma after diagnosis. If you know you have asthma, work with your healthcare provider to keep it under control.
- If your asthma symptoms get worse. Contact your doctor right away if your medication doesn't seem to ease your symptoms or if you need to use your quick-relief inhaler more often.
- To review your treatment. Meet with your doctor regularly to discuss your symptoms and make any needed treatment adjustments.
You can prevent asthma flare-ups by avoiding allergens that trigger your symptoms and the use of a preventer medicine. A combination of both is the best way to prevent a flare-up. The most effective preventers contain two drugs, a long-acting drug that relaxes the lungs and a steroid to prevent the reaction.
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 keep symptoms under control.
The treatment goals for asthma are to:
- Adequately control symptoms.
- Minimize the risk of future worsening of asthma.
- Maintain normal lung function.
- Maintain normal activity levels, and;
- Take the least amount of medication possible with the least amount of potential side effects.
Taking care of yourself can help keep your symptoms under control, including:
- Get regular exercise. Regular exercise can strengthen your heart and lungs, which helps relieve asthma symptoms. If you exercise in cold temperatures, wear a face mask to warm the air you breathe.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight can worsen asthma symptoms, and it puts you at higher risk of other health problems.
- Control heartburn. Heartburn may damage lung airways and worsen asthma symptoms. If you have frequent or constant heartburn, talk to your doctor about treatment options.
In asthma, as with most allergies, avoiding the allergen is the best management. Wear medical masks to prevent airborne allergies, and wear clothes covering your body to avoid contact allergens. Avoiding food-related allergens may be easier if you cook at home compared to eating out.
With proper management, you can live a normal life if you have asthma. Combining avoidance with daily medicines (a combination of inhaled corticosteroid and long-acting relief medicine) is the recommended treatment in most patients.
In children over 6, concerns about stunted growth when exposed to long-term use of corticosteroids are untrue. Most children will grow to a normal height despite inhaled corticosteroids. More importantly, children using preventers may avoid asthma complications and outgrow the symptoms with proper care.