Last Updated: June 06, 2018

Asthma

Overview

Asthma is a chronic condition wherein the airways that deliver air to the lungs become swollen and narrowed. Certain substances in the environment act as “triggers” for increased inflammation and mucus production that further restrict airflow, causing shortness of breath, wheezing, and coughing.

Asthma affects people at any age and can lead to minor symptoms or life-threatening attacks. Although there is no cure, individuals with asthma can treat their symptoms with medication and lead normal lives. Seven million children and over 18 million adults live with asthma in the United States.

Causes and Risk Factors

The exact cause of asthma is not yet understood; however, various environmental and genetic factors are known to play a role. Asthma triggers can lead to symptoms (mild or severe) in those who already have the disease, and they include:

Asthma risk factors increase a person’s likelihood of developing the disease, and they include:

bronchi within the left lung

Symptoms

The following symptoms are associated with an “asthma episode” or “asthma attack”, and may require immediate medical attention:

Diagnosis and Treatment

In order to diagnose asthma, a doctor first conducts a physical exam and inquires about the family history of asthma and other known risk factors. Next, various tests are performed to assess the flow of air into the lungs. The following are the main diagnostic tests for asthma:

Sometimes a diagnosis of asthma is actually incorrect, when the correct diagnosis would be a genetic disorder called A1AD (alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency); it develops gradually and can present similarly to asthma. Learn about how DNA health testing can help determine if there’s a genetically higher risk that you’re actually suffering from A1AD.

Asthma treatment requires a lifetime commitment and depends on the severity and frequency of symptoms. Long-term treatments aim to prevent severe asthma attacks, while quick-relief treatments control sudden flare-ups. Treatments are generally delivered via hand-held inhalers or nebulizers that produce a fine mist.

Prevention

Although asthma the disease cannot be prevented, asthma attacks can be prevented by taking the required medications and avoiding known triggers. Getting the pneumonia and seasonal flu vaccines also help avoid asthma-related complications. Reducing exposure to cigarette smoke, air pollutants, and harmful aerosolized chemicals, especially during infancy, can lower the risk of developing asthma later in life.

Sources

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Authored by: Tina Shahian, PhD