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Causes, Symptoms, Treatment & Tests For Asthma

Submitted on March 27, 2012

Asthma can be described as a chronic respiratory condition that causes your airways to swell and become narrower. Your airways also produce a higher amount of mucus, because of which you may find it difficult to breathe at times. This is why people suffering from asthma often experience symptoms such as wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath. In case you are suffering from asthma you may need to refrain from participating in any activity that could trigger off an attack. The consumption of certain foods can also lead to an asthma attack or can worsen the symptoms considerably. Cases of severe asthma can result in an attack that is life-threatening.

Thousands of men, women and children in the US suffer from asthma today and studies indicate that the numbers seem to be growing. Though anyone can suffer from this condition, there are several factors that can increase the chances of developing it, like smoking or exposure to smoke, previous family history of asthma, being exposed to harmful chemicals or pollution regularly, suffering from allergic conditions, being overweight and so on.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for asthma, but by following the right treatment you can control the symptoms to some extent. Since it is a chronic condition, you will need to undergo treatment on a lifelong basis, which could include the use of medication and a quick relief inhaler. A healthy diet and good lifestyle practices are also essential in the management of asthma. As asthma changes over a period of time, it is best for you to work with your doctor so that any new development can be tracked and treated immediately.

Types of Asthma

Not a lot of people are aware of the fact that there are different types of asthma. In case you are diagnosed with asthma, it is important for you to identify which type it is, because the symptoms and triggers for each type may vary. Understanding the different types of asthma can also help you seek the most effective form of treatment.

Exercise-Induced Asthma

This type of asthma occurs due to physical exertion, like when you exercise a lot. Several people, especially Olympic athletes suffer from this type of asthma, where they experience the symptoms of the condition only when they exercise. In case you are suffering from exercise-induced asthma, you may notice the symptoms of the condition after you work out or engage in any form of strenuous physical activity. Around 5 to 20 minutes after the exercise begins, you may find it difficult to catch your breath. You could also start wheezing and coughing at the same time. In order to prevent a flare-up, you could speak to your doctor about using an asthma inhaler before exercising.

Cough-Variant Asthma

In this type of asthma, the main symptom you experience is severe bouts of coughing. Several people assume that the severe coughing bouts are caused by other factors like GERD, heartburn, sinusitis, rhinitis and postnasal drip. However, in many instances, severe coughing occurs due to sinusitis with asthma. Unfortunately, cough-variant asthma goes undiagnosed and under treated in several cases, even though its triggers are very common. Before treating this condition, your doctor may advise you to undergo a lung function test to determine how effectively your lungs are working. For a proper diagnosis, you may have to consult a lung specialist.

Nighttime (Nocturnal) Asthma

Around 75% of the people that have asthma suffer from the symptoms mainly during the night, which disrupts their sleep at least once a week. This is known as nocturnal or nighttime asthma. People who have disturbed sleep due to nighttime asthma usually experience poor concentration during the day. In this case, it is important to identify the cause of the asthma at the earliest and get it addressed at the earliest.

Tests Recommended

If you do suspect that you are suffering from a respiratory problem, it is best for you to consult your family doctor or a good general practitioner at first. However, do not be surprised if you are asked to consult a pulmonologist, an allergist or any other specialist. Unfortunately, diagnosing asthma is not very easy and very often, this condition is mistaken for pneumonia, wheezy bronchitis and other similar airway diseases. Before you are asked to take any asthma tests, be prepared to go through a physical examination. You will probably also have to answer a number of different questions about your exact symptoms, their frequency, their severity, any allergies that you have had, and so on. Given below, are some of the medical tests that you may need to go through:

  • Spirometry: This is one of the lung function tests that measures the narrowing of the bronchial tubes. Through this test, your doctor will check how much air you can breathe out after taking in a deep breath. A note will also be made of how fast you can exhale.
  • Peak flow: This is another type of lung function test, in which the doctor will use a device to measure how hard you can exhale. If the reading is lower than the usual peak flow, it means that your lungs are not working as well as they should and that your asthma is getting worse.
  • Allergy tests: Skin prick tests or an allergy test is usually recommended if your health care provider suspects that the condition has been triggered by allergies.
  • Chest X-rays: Though this is not specifically an asthma test, your doctor may recommend it, just to make sure that no other condition or disease is responsible for asthma in your case.

Some of the other tests that could also be recommended include:

  • Blood tests (to check for overall health and the functioning of the immune system)
  • GERD/ heartburn evaluation
  • Sinus evaluation

Asthma tests for adults and kids not only help doctors confirm the diagnosis but also enable them to determine if the condition is mild intermittent, mild persistent, moderate persistent or severe persistent. After gathering all the information, your doctor will suggest the best course of treatment.

Causes

Scientists are not quite sure why some people suffer from this chronic respiratory condition and others don't, but it is believed that asthma causes include a combination of genetic and environmental factors. One of the most common asthma causes in children is heredity, where one or both parents already have this condition. Low birth weight and a weakened immune system are also common ashtma causes in children. It has been seen that very often, severe respiratory infections during childhood can act as asthma causes in adults. Grownups, who are on medications like beta blockers, NSAIDS and aspirin regularly, could also develop asthma. The menstrual cycle is one of the most common asthma causes in women.

The factors that trigger this condition could differ from one person to the other. Given below are some of the most common factors that could lead the symptoms of asthma:

  • Allergies: Excessive exposure to certain airborne allergens like pollen, dust mites, mold, smoke and animal dander can cause you to suffer from asthma. Allergic reactions to certain food and food additives like fish, peanuts, milk, and so on could lead to asthma too. This also applies to the sulfites or preservatives added to several foods and beverages. You may even get a severe asthmatic attack because of these allergens.
  • Infections: Not a lot of people are aware of the fact that a common cold can lead to asthmatic attacks, as a cold could cause the airways to swell.
  • Smoking: This is one of the most common asthma causes in adults. Children who are exposed to a lot of smoke, or whose mothers smoked during pregnancy also have a strong likelihood of suffering from asthma.
  • GERD: Gastro Esophageal Reflux disease, often referred to as heartburn, is a condition in which the acids from the stomach, back up into the throat. This can lead to breathing problems and wheezing.
  • Physical activity: People who are suffering from asthma should only engage in exercises that have been recommended by a doctor. Many people have exercise-induced asthma because of strenuous physical activity.

In order to treat the condition, it is important to identify what the possible asthma causes could be.

Symptoms

There are several symptoms of asthma and they can range from mild to severe. These symptoms can vary from one person to another; some people have infrequent attacks, with mild symptoms, whereas for others the signs and symptoms or asthma may be severe. You are likely to experience the early symptoms of asthma mainly when you are exercising or during the night. As the condition progresses, the symptoms can be experienced at any time. Given below are some of the most common symptoms of asthma:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain or tightness in the chest
  • Difficulty in sleeping, because of wheezing, coughing or breath shortness
  • Severe bouts of coughing or wheezing

Between the flare-ups or attacks, you should not face any breathing difficulty or shortness in breath. Nevertheless, if you do notice any of these symptoms on more than one occasion, it is important for you to consult a doctor, without any delay. If the condition gets worse, the symptoms are also likely to become more severe. Given below are the signs and symptoms of severe asthma:

  • Frequent flare-ups
  • Increased breathing difficulty
  • Use of quick-relief inhaler on a regular basis

Do bear in mind that severe asthma attacks can be fatal, which is why emergency medical help should be sought without any delay. In such cases, the patient may experience some of the unusual asthma symptoms, which include:

  • Rapid worsening of breathing problems
  • Lack of improvement in spite of using a quick-relief inhaler
  • Shortness of breath after minimal physical activity

Treatment

The treatment for asthma is an ongoing process, as this condition is a chronic one. However, since the types of symptoms as well as their severity keep changing, it is important to make sure that the condition is monitored by a doctor at all times, as the treatment may also need to be altered. In case you first refer to your family doctor or a general practitioner, you may be asked to consult asthma specialist for proper asthma treatment.

Different types of medication play an important role in the management and treatment for asthma. Long-term medicines help to keep the uncomfortable symptoms under control, some of which include:

  • Inhaled corticosteroids like fluticasone, budesonide, mometasone, flunisolide, and beclomethasone
  • Leukotriene modifiers such as montelukast, zafirlukast and zileuton
  • Long Acting Beta Agonists (LABA), like salmeterol and formoterol
  • Theophylline, a bronchodilator that should be taken on a daily basis, to keep the airways open.

Your doctor may also recommend combination inhalers, which include fluticasone, budesonide, salmeterol and formoterol. Unfortunately, there are a few side effects that have been associated with some of these medicines.

Quick relief inhalers, also known as bronchodilators are also an important part of asthma treatment, as they open the swollen airways. Some of the common quick relief medicines include:

  • Short acting beta agonists
  • Ipratropium
  • Oral corticosteroids

However, it is best for patients to avoid relying on quick relief medication on a long-term basis. At times, doctors could also suggest that the treatment for asthma include:

  • Nebulizers
  • Allergy shot or immunotherapy
  • Omalizumab injections
  • Allergy medicines
  • Bronchial thermoplasty

Many people choose to undergo herbal treatment for asthma, as they believe that it triggers fewer side effects. Some of the herbs that are recommended for asthmatic patients are:

  • Gingko extract
  • Dried ivy
  • Butterbur
  • Licorice
  • Anise
  • Stinging nettle
  • Comfrey
  • Garlic
  • Red clover

Before taking any of these herbs, it is important to get an approval from your doctor as well as an herbalist. Do bear in mind that there are certain side effects associated with some of these herbs too.

Asthma is a serious condition, but it can be controlled with the help of medication, a diet and healthy lifestyle practices. It is also essential to ensure that this condition is monitored and treated by a doctor at all times.

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