By Sola Ogundipe
Asthma is a chronic but treatable disease of the airways that makes breathing difficult. There is inflammation of the air passages that results in a temporary narrowing of the airways that carry oxygen to the lungs. This leads to coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness. If it is severe, asthma can result in decreased activity and inability to talk.
Inadequate treatment limits the ability to be active. Poorly controlled asthma can lead to multiple visits to the emergency room and even hospital admission, which can affect performance at home and work. But asthma doesn’t have to be a limiting condition. With proper treatment, you can live well.
While there’s no way to prevent asthma, by working together, you and your doctor can design a step-by-step plan for living with your condition and preventing asthma attacks.
Who is at risk?
Asthma may occur at any age, and is increasingly prevalent among children. The symptoms can vary from episode to episode in the same child. It is more common in people under age 40. People who have a family history of asthma have an increased risk of developing the disease. However, anyone can develop asthma at any time, and adult-onset asthma happens frequently. Even though there are seemingly miraculous treatments, asthma is still a serious — even dangerous — disease that affects millions and causes countless hospital visits.
If you suspect that you have asthma, you should see a pulmonologist (asthma specialist). If asthma is diagnosed, you would be given an asthma action plan that should outline your treatment and medications to be used. If you have adult-onset asthma, your doctor will instruct you in using the inhaler and other medications to prevent further breathing problems. If you have asthma, you’ll need long-term care. Successful asthma treatment requires that you take an active role in your care and follow your asthma action plan.
Signs and symptoms
Frequent coughing spells, which may occur during play, at nighttime, or while laughing. It’s important to know that coughing with asthma may be the only symptom present. An asthmatic child has less energy during play, or pausing to catch breath. There is rapid or shallow breathing, complaint of chest tightness or chest “hurting”, and a whistling (wheezing) sound when breathing in or out. You would see seesaw motions in the chest from labored breathing (retractions), shortness of breath, as well as tightened neck and chest muscles.
Causes and triggers
People with asthma have very sensitive airways that react to many different things in the environment called asthma trigger. Contact with these triggers cause asthma symptoms to start or worsen. The common triggers include infections such as sinusitis, colds and strong emotions such as anxiety, laughter or crying, and stress. Others are allergens such as pollens, mold spores, pet dander, and dust mites, irritants such as strong odours from perfumes or cleaning solutions, and air pollution. Also risky are tobacco smoke, the weather, changes in temperature and/or humidity, cold air, etc.
An asthma attack is a sudden worsening of symptoms. Prolonged asthma attacks that do not respond to treatment with bronchodilators are a medical emergency and they require immediate emergency care.
Symptoms may vary from mild to severe from one asthma attack to the next. With an asthma attack, the airways tighten, swell up, or fill with mucus. There is severe shortness of breath and little or no relief from the reliever inhaler. Other common symptoms include coughing especially at night, wheezing (a high-pitched whistling sound when breathing out), shortness of breath or trouble breathing and chest tightness, pain, or pressure. Not every person with asthma experiences the same symptoms which may be subtle, such as decreased activity or lethargy.
How to manage your asthma
Develop an asthma action plan with your physician. This plan will help you know when and how to take your medicines. The plan also will help you identify your asthma triggers and manage your disease if asthma symptoms worsen. Children aged 10 or older—and younger children who can handle it—should be involved in creating and following their asthma action plans.
Knowing when to seek emergency medical care is important. Learn how to use your medicines correctly. If you take inhaled medicines, you should practice using your inhaler at your doctor’s office. If you take long-term control medicines, take them daily as your doctor prescribes. Record your asthma symptoms as a way to track how well your asthma is controlled. Also, your doctor may advise you to use a peak flow meter to measure and record how well your lungs are working. Keep records of your symptoms or peak flow results daily for a couple of weeks before an office visit. You’ll bring these records with you to the visit.
Signs that your asthma is getting worse
Your asthma might be getting worse if your symptoms start to occur more often, are more severe, or bother you at night and cause you to lose sleep. If you are limiting your normal activities and missing school or work because of your asthma, you should be concerned. Inform your physician if your medicines don’t seem to work well anymore and you have to use your quick-relief inhaler more often. If you’re using quick-relief medicine more than two days a week, your asthma isn’t well controlled. Partner with your health care team and take an active role in your care. This can help you better control your asthma so it doesn’t interfere with your activities and disrupt your life.
The key to living with asthma is keeping it under control. This means learning about what causes your symptoms, how to avoid these triggers and how to use your medications correctly. Asthma is an ongoing condition that needs regular monitoring and treatment. Taking control of your treatment can make you feel more in control of your life in general. The disorder can be challenging and stressful, the main goal of asthma treatment is to achieve the best control using the least amount of medicine.