Managing asthma involves identifying triggers, treating symptoms
By: Victoria Heren, M.D.
Asthma is a chronic disease that affects more than 22 million Americans and causes nearly two million visits to the emergency room each year. Many of these are children. According to the Center for Disease Control, about one in 10 American children now has asthma. And that number has been rising. The rate of childhood asthma has more than doubled since 1980.
Asthma is a disease of the airways characterized by inflammation of the air passages, an increase in mucus production and a temporary narrowing of the airways, making breathing difficult.
Symptoms of asthma can vary from person to person. In fact, they can vary from episode to episode in the same person. Some common symptoms include:
• Frequent coughing spells, especially during play and at night. For some asthma sufferers, this may be the only symptom of the disease.
• A wheezing or whistling sound when breathing in and out.
• Shortness of breath or rapid breathing.
• A feeling of tightness, pain or pressure in the chest.
• Feeling weak, tired or less energetic than usual.
An asthma attack occurs when one or more environmental asthma triggers irritate the airways causing inflammation, mucus production and a tightening of the airway muscles. Asthma triggers can include infections (such as sinusitis, a cold or the flu), allergens, tobacco smoke, exercise, weather changes, anxiety, stress, strong odors and air pollution.
The severity of an attack can increase quickly, so it’s important to react to the first symptoms or early warning signs as quickly as possible.
There are certain factors that put you at increased risk for asthma. A family history is one. Allergies are another factor. Asthma and allergies often occur together. Asthma can appear at any age, but it is more likely to begin before age 40. However, anyone can develop asthma at any time. If you have asthma symptoms, it is important to talk about them with your doctor.
Getting a proper diagnosis is the first step to managing your asthma. This can sometimes be difficult. Often, patients are not exhibiting asthma symptoms during their appointment with the doctor, so it is difficult to assess the symptoms firsthand. In addition, asthma can seem like a mysterious disease. You may go for weeks without experiencing any symptoms, and then suddenly have two attacks within a few days’ time.
You can help your doctor make an accurate diagnosis more quickly by carefully monitoring the factors that trigger your asthma as well as the specific symptoms that you experience during an attack.
Once a diagnosis is made, your doctor can prescribe a treatment plan to help avoid or reduce your asthma symptoms. You will learn to recognize triggers and early warning signs and treat them with medications to lessen the impact that asthma has on your daily life.
There are two main types of medication used to treat asthma. The first are steroids and other anti-inflammatory drugs. These inhaled medications work by reducing swelling and mucus production in the airways. They are the most important asthma medication as they actually improve the state of the lungs. Unfortunately, they are slow acting so people don’t always perceive they are working, when these medications are actually doing very important work.
The second type of asthma medications are bronchodilators, which relieve symptoms by relaxing the muscle bands that tighten around the airways.
Bronchodilators can be short acting – used to quickly reduce symptoms, or long-acting. Long acting bronchodilators are often combined with inhaled steroids when a person’s asthma symptoms occur more than once a week, despite treatment with steroids alone. Bronchodilators make people feel better so people tend to believe these medications make the disease better. Actually the bronchodilators just help symptoms, but don’t improve the airways.
Proper treatment is key to decreasing or eliminating your asthma symptoms. By working with your doctor to identify asthma triggers and use medications as prescribed at the first sign of symptoms, the majority of patients can learn to control their asthma – and take back control of their own lives.
Dr. Heren is a board certified family practice physician at Raiter Clinic.