What Is Asthma? Examining the Causes and Symptoms

What Is Asthma? Examining the Causes and Symptoms
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Understanding What Causes Asthma and Asthma Symptoms

If you have asthma, it can be pretty scary. When you’re feeling good, life is OK. When you have an exacerbation, it sometimes feels like you’re breathing through a straw.

Asthma is labeled as a chronic condition, meaning that the symptoms may wax and wane over time — it can exacerbate from multiple variables. The condition causes inflammation and then narrowing of the bronchial tubes, which causes breathing difficulties.

You are not alone in your suffering. It is estimated that approximately asthma affects 26 million Americans and half of those cases are caused by a genetic component.

What Causes Asthma?

Asthma is typically due to the person having a sensitive airway. This means that when they breathe in certain substances or come into contact with certain foods or medications, their bronchial tubes may constrict, causing an asthma attack.

Triggers of asthma are highly personal to the asthma sufferer, but there are many triggers that are common. Some of these include:

  • Environmental allergens (pollens, dust mites, pet dander, mold spores)
  • Strong odors, such as perfumes, paints, and cleaning supplies
  • Tobacco smoke
  • Medications (for example, aspirin-sensitive asthma)
  • Illness, such as a cold or influenza
  • Exercise
  • Stress
  • Weather (for example, very humid or very dry air)

As you can see from the triggers listed above, allergenic triggers sometimes cause asthma, and sometimes they don’t. Asthma is considered allergic or non-allergic, based on the type of triggers that cause the asthma exacerbation.

Regardless of what type of asthma you have, if you note that you are sensitive to a trigger, it is recommended that you avoid that trigger if possible.

Symptoms of Asthma

Asthma symptoms are fairly universal, regardless of whether your asthma is allergic or non-allergic asthma. Sometimes asthma is not easily diagnosed if symptoms are not severe, as one of the most common symptoms is coughing.

Other symptoms include:

  • Breathing difficulties
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing with respiration
  • Chest tightness

For children, symptoms are similar. However, you may also notice rapid breathing and frequent upper respiratory infections.

Asthma Treatment

The good thing is that there are many ways to treat asthma, from daily inhalers to rescue inhalers, to oral medications, to self-care remedies. Below, we’ve outlined some of your options.

Quick-Acting Medications

Quick-acting medications should be taken at the onset of symptoms. If taken correctly, they can potentially head-off a large-scale asthma exacerbation.

There are two different types (short-acting beta2-agonist and anticholinergic); both are bronchodilators, which dilate the bronchiole tubes. This dilation of the bronchiole tubes allows air to flow freely through the lungs.

For those with exercise-induced asthma, your doctor may recommend taking a quick-acting medication prior to exercise.

Long-Term Control Medications

These medications are taken daily to prevent and control asthma. It is important to remember that these medications should be taken daily as they prevent symptoms — they need to be taken even if you are feeling well.

There are a number of different types of long-term medications:

  • Immunomodulators
  • Oral corticosteroids
  • Antileukotrienes or leukotriene modifiers
  • Cromolyn sodium and nedocromil
  • Methylxanthines
  • Inhaled corticosteroids
  • Long-acting inhaled beta2-agonists (although these are not given alone and are always given with another long-term drug)

Immunotherapy

You may have heard of “allergy shots” — this is when you are given small doses of the things you are allergic to. This allows you to build up immunity to these things.

This is a helpful treatment for asthma, as it can decrease the trigger exponentially. Immunotherapy is also available as a sublingual tablet for a few different environmental allergens.

Saline Rinses

Saline rinses through a Neti Pot or a similar device may also help your asthma symptoms if they are caused by environmental allergens. The rinse basically clears your nose of the allergens that may trigger an exacerbation.

It is also important to note that tap water is not recommended for saline rinses; the CDC recommends using distilled, sterile, or previously boiled water.

Resources

American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (Asthma Information – Overview)

American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (Asthma Treatment)

WebMD (What is Asthma?)

WebMD (Neti Pot, Nasal irrigation Pros and Cons)