ABOUT ASTHMA

AsthmaMany people think of asthma as an ‘attack’: one minute you feel okay and the next you have to gasp for air.  But asthma causes many symptoms beyond attacks. 

Perhaps you wheeze, making a squeaky or whistling sound when you breathe.  You might have frequent chest colds or bronchitis a few times a year.  Or maybe your only asthma symptom is a cough that wakes you up at night or happens when you exercise or laugh. 

The important thing to remember is that all asthma is serious and even can be deadly.  If you have asthma, you have it all the time – not just when you have symptoms or an attack.  It’s a chronic disease, meaning it’s constant and does not go away.  So even though you may feel just fine, you still have asthma.  And if you don’t treat asthma properly, it can damage your lungs. 

 


The good news is asthma can be controlled to stop symptoms or attacks.  Allergists are doctors who have the specialized training and experience to find out what causes your asthma, prevent and treat symptoms and help keep it under control. 

If your asthma is in control, you can expect:

  • Few or no asthma symptoms, even at night or after exercise
  • Prevention of all or most asthma attacks
  • No problems being active, including exercising
  • No emergency room visits or hospital stays
  • Less need for quick-relief medicines
  • Few or no side effects from asthma medicines

WHAT IS ASTHMA?

Asthma is a disease that affects the airways in the lungs.  If you have asthma, the lining in your airways are inflamed and swollen all the time.  This makes your airways more likely to be bothered by allergens or other things such as smoke, stress, exercise or cold air.  These ‘triggers’ don’t bother most people, but they can cause symptoms if you have asthma.  They also can cause an ‘asthma attack,’ making your airways swell even more and blocking air flow into your lungs.

WHO HAS ASTHMA AND WHY?

Asthma is very common, affecting more than 22 million people in the United States, including almost 7 million children.  No one knows for sure why some people have asthma and others don’t.   People who have family members with allergies or asthma are more likely to have asthma. 

Many people who have asthma also have allergies.  In many cases, allergies trigger asthma symptoms or an asthma attack.  This ‘allergic asthma’ is the most common form of asthma.  It’s often triggered by allergens like dust mites, animal dander, mold and pollen. 

Allergists are experts at treating both allergies and asthma.  They can explain how your allergies can affect your asthma and steps you need to take to keep both conditions under control.

WHAT ARE ASTHMA SYMPTOMS?

Many people do not know they have asthma, especially if their symptoms aren’t severe.  But any asthma symptom is serious and can become deadly. 

The most common asthma symptoms are:

  • Coughing, especially at night, with exercise, or when laughing
  • Trouble breathing
  • A tight feeling in the chest
  • Wheezing – a squeaky or whistling sound

Sometimes a cough that won’t go away is the only symptom.  Asthma symptoms often happen at night and in the morning, but they can happen any time.  They get worse when you are around your asthma triggers. 

WHAT TRIGGERS ASTHMA?

Asthma triggers are irritants, activities, medicines and health conditions that can cause symptoms if you have asthma.  Different people are bothered by different triggers.

Asthma triggers include:

  • Allergens such as pollen, dust mites, mold, feathers, cats and dogs or other animals, and some foods
  • Tobacco smoke, air pollution, some chemicals, gases and odors like perfume
  • Exercise
  • Medicines such as aspirin
  • Cold air or sudden weather changes
  • Health problems such as obesity, sleep breathing disorders, acid reflux, common colds, sinus infections, stress and depression

To take control of your asthma, the first step is to know your asthma triggers and try to avoid them.  An allergist can help you do both.

HOW IS ASTHMA DIAGNOSED?

If you have never been diagnosed with asthma but think you might have the disease, see an allergist.  Early diagnosis and proper treatment are important to help prevent damage to your lungs.

When you visit an allergist, the doctor will:

  • Take a medical history.  You will be asked about your health, your symptoms, and whether members of your family have asthma or allergies such as hay fever, hives or skin rashes like eczema.
  • Ask you about your asthma attacks or symptoms. The allergist will want to know when symptoms occur, how often they happen and what seems to bring them on.
  • Do a physical exam.
  • Test your breathing.  The allergist will measure how your lungs are working with a quick and painless test called spirometry.  The test measures how much air you can blow out of your lungs after taking a deep breath.

The allergist also may order other tests such as a chest x-ray, blood tests or allergy tests. Allergy tests can be done at any age and can be helpful in finding out if your asthma is triggered by allergies.

HOW IS ASTHMA TREATED?

AsthmaAsthma treatment depends on your symptoms and how serious and frequent they are. To help develop the right plan to control your asthma, your allergist may ask about your current and past symptoms. This will help determine your risk for future attacks.

Trigger avoidance

Once you and your allergist have identified factors that trigger your asthma, one of the first steps in controlling your asthma is to learn how to avoid them. In some cases, avoidance can be just as effective as taking medicine.

Medicines

There are two types of medicines to treat asthma.

  • Medicines for quick relief. Anyone with asthma should carry quick-relief medicine at all times in case of an asthma attack.  These medicines help open the lungs’ airways. They also treat the noisy part of the disease – the coughing, wheezing and gasping for breath that can happen during an asthma attack. Your allergist also may recommend using this medicine before exercise.

Quick-relief medicines can stop asthma symptoms, but they do not control the inflammation in   the lungs that causes the symptoms.  If you need your quick-relief medicine more than twice a week or two nights a month, then your asthma is not well controlled. Be sure to tell your allergist.

  • Daily medicines for long-term control. Some people need this type of medicine to treat the quiet part of asthma – the inflammation that causes the airways in the lungs to become inflamed and swollen.  If your doctor prescribes these medicines, they should be taken every day to prevent symptoms.

Allergy shots

If your asthma is triggered by an allergy, you should consider allergy shots.  Also known as immunotherapy, the shots are very effective in relieving allergy symptoms and, in some cases, can actually cure your allergy. 

The treatment builds up immunity to your offending allergens, usually over several years.  It works by injecting small amounts of the allergen in gradually increasing amounts over time.  As the shots help the body build up a tolerance to the effects of the allergen, they eventually reduce and can even eliminate you allergy symptoms. 

ALLERGISTS AND ASTHMA

Studies show that people with asthma who see an allergist reduce their:

  • Symptoms
  • Emergency room visits
  • Hospital stays
  • Visits to the doctor because they are sick
  • Missed days from work or school
  • Health care costs

They are happier about their care and have a better quality of life.

 

Information provided by ACAAI (American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology)

Medical Disclaimer: The information contained on the Chicagoland Allergy web site is presented for the purpose of educating people about allergic conditions. Nothing contained on this web site should be construed nor is intended to be used for medical diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider.