Asthma is a common disease that affects more than 22 million Americans, including 6.5 million children. It occurs when the linings of lung airways become inflamed and swollen and muscle spasms block airflow to the lungs. Although the exact cause of asthma is not known, many treatments are available to control the disease.
Understand your condition
If you have asthma, you may experience wheezing, shortness of breath, a feeling of tightness in your chest or a persistent cough, especially late at night or early in the morning. Medical problems other than asthma can also cause similar symptoms.
When caused by asthma, these breathing problems are the result of conditions in the airways of your lungs:
- An inflamed and swollen airway lining, producing thick mucus that may clog the airways.
- Airway muscle spasm that constricts and narrows the airways.
- Sensitivity to common allergens like pollen, dust mites, cockroaches, molds, animal danders.
- Irritation of the airways by asthma triggers such as tobacco smoke, air pollution, the common cold, sinus infections, and cold air.
Early diagnosis. Your asthma may be diagnosed by your personal or family physician, or by an asthma specialist such as an allergist. The important thing is that the symptoms of asthma be recognized early and dealt with effectively. The longer you wait, the more permanent may be the damage to your lungs.
Proper treatment. Once asthma is diagnosed, aggressive treatment is recommended to gain quick control of your asthma. Regardless of the severity of your condition, the goals of asthma treatment are the same: control of your symptoms and a normal lifestyle. You and your doctor will work together to develop a treatment plan that can:
- End the coughing, wheezing and breathlessness, especially at night and in the morning.
- Enable you to participate in all normal activities including exercise.
- Avoid emergency room visits or hospitalizations.
- Avoid the possible side effects of asthma medications.
- Meet your goals for a good quality of life.
Asthma medications play an important role in asthma therapy. No matter how severe your asthma, a quick-relief medication must be readily available for treatment of acute symptoms. If your asthma is more than mild and intermittent, a preventive "controller" anti-inflammatory medication should be used on a regular basis.
When allergy triggers cannot be avoided, immunotherapy ("allergy shots") may be considered. Immunotherapy is especially helpful when symptoms occur year-round or during a majority of the year, or when it is difficult to control symptoms with medication.
Ongoing monitoring. Regular visits with your doctor to monitor your condition will help you meet your treatment goals. During your visits, the doctor will review your asthma symptoms, activities, peak flow records and medications.
Between visits you'll likely be using a peak flow meter and keep a diary to monitor the health of your lungs. Close monitoring of your condition will help you and your doctor determine if any changes in your treatment are necessary.
When to see an asthma specialist
An allergist can diagnose asthma, help you learn more about your asthma and help you develop a treatment plan to prevent your symptoms.
The new asthma guidelines recommend that you see an asthma specialist (such as an allergist) if you have difficulty achieving or maintaining control of your asthma. You should seek specialist care if:
- You have had a life-threatening asthma attack.
- You are not meeting the goals of your asthma therapy after three to six months of treatment, or your doctor believes you are not responding to current therapy.
- Your symptoms are unusual or difficult to diagnose.
- You have other conditions such as severe hay fever or sinusitis that complicate your asthma or your diagnosis.
- You need additional diagnostic tests to determine the severity of your asthma and what causes your asthma symptoms.
- You require additional education or guidance on the complications of therapy, adhering to your treatment plan or avoiding asthma triggers.
- You are a candidate for immunotherapy.
- You have severe persistent asthma.
- You require continuous oral corticosteroid therapy or high-dose inhaled corticosteroids, or have taken more than two bursts of oral corticosteroids in one year.
Children under 3 with moderate or severe asthma, or children who are beginning daily long-term therapy, also should see an asthma specialist.
Remember, if you have trouble with wheezing, coughing or shortness of breath at work, you could have occupational asthma:
- Consult your physician. He or she may suggest pulmonary function testing.
- See your work supervisor for details about potential hazards in your work environment.
- Have the tests and evaluation required to prove the suspected occupational asthma and its cause.
- Seek your physician's advice about therapy for occupational asthma.
- Seek an early and accurate diagnosis.
- Work with your regular physician or allergist to develop a written, daily action plan for managing asthma symptoms.
- Control your environment to the extent practical.
- Avoid your known asthma triggers.
- Adhere to the medication plan prescribed by your physician. Notify your physician if there are any problems obtaining the medications that have been prescribed.
- Monitor your response to treatment.
- Communicate with your physicians.
This Article is taken in whole or in part from the American college of allergy, asthma, and immunology. For further information visit www.acaai.org