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Last updated: Oct 08, 2021
5 min read

Asthma: what is it, symptoms, types, treatment

steve silvestro

Medically Reviewed by Steve Silvestro, MD

Written by Ashley Braun, RD, MPH

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

If you or your child regularly experiences wheezing and shortness of breath, it could be a sign of asthma instead of a cold. Asthma is a common lung condition affecting up to 20% of people in the U.S. Most people are diagnosed with asthma during their childhood (Hashmi, 2021). Still, it can also appear in adults. 

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What is asthma?

Asthma is a type of chronic lung condition that leads to trouble breathing. When you have asthma, sometimes your airways become inflamed and narrowed, leaving your breathing feeling restricted (Hashmi, 2021). Symptoms can be mild and linger for long periods or develop suddenly (called an asthma attack). 

While asthma is often considered a childhood condition, this condition affects people of all ages. Some people may “grow out of” their childhood asthma symptoms and experience episodes less frequently or not at all as they get older. There’s debate about whether it’s possible to truly outgrow asthma, though, and it’s considered a life-long condition. 

Types of asthma

Sometimes asthma is classified into different types depending on the asthma triggers or symptoms. 

Here are some of the types of asthma (Hashmi, 2021):

  • Allergic asthma is caused by an allergic reaction. Common allergens that may trigger asthma include dust mites, mold, pet hair, pet dander, pollen, and pests. 
  • Non-allergic asthma is caused by irritants not classified as allergens. These include breathing cold air, medicines, household cleaners, respiratory infections (colds or flu), rhinitis (sinus inflammation), air pollution, and tobacco smoke.
  • Exercise-induced asthma is when symptoms develop during physical activity, especially when the air is cold or dry.
  • Occupational asthma is a non-allergen type caused by breathing in industrial chemicals or dust while at work.  
  • Cough-variant asthma is a type where the primary symptom is a dry cough, meaning there is little to no mucus produced and coughed up, and wheezing may not be present.
  • Nocturnal asthma is when asthma symptoms mainly occur at night time, interfering with sleep quality.

Causes of asthma

It’s unclear what causes asthma. However, it’s believed genetics and your environment are risk factors for asthma development and its severity (Hashmi, 2021). 

Asthma is likely a result of a strong immune system response to a trigger or irritant. Your response system responds to the triggers by creating inflammation that causes the muscles in the walls of your airway to squeeze and the walls themselves to become thicker (Mims, 2015). 

Some people will experience more mucus production with asthma, making it feel even more challenging to breathe. 

Asthma triggers

The number and severity of asthma triggers will vary from person to person. And your triggers may change over time. 

Here are some examples of common triggers for asthma (Hashmi, 2021):

  • Cold weather
  • Exercise, especially endurance workouts
  • Dust
  • Smoke, including cigars, cigarettes, or campfire smoke
  • Chemicals and gases, such as cleaners and disinfectants
  • Mold
  • Dry air
  • Pet hair and dandruff
  • Pests, such as cockroaches, mice, etc.

Symptoms of asthma

Asthma is a condition affecting your lung and airways, causing symptoms like (Hashmi, 2021):

  • Wheezing or a whistling sound
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness and pain
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Coughing

Symptoms range from mild, where they may feel like a minor nuisance, or more severe, where they make it challenging to complete your normal daily activities.  

When symptoms appear suddenly or become worse than usual, it’s called an asthma attack. Signs of an asthma attack include (Hashmi, 2021):

  • Sudden worsening of symptoms
  • Severe shortness of breath (sometimes described as feeling like you’re breathing through a straw)
  • Severe chest tightness or pain
  • Coughing and wheezing
  • Dizziness and fainting
  • Pale, sweaty face
  • Rapid breathing

If you’re experiencing the symptoms of an asthma attack, it’s recommended to use a quick-relief inhaler (rescue inhaler) if you have one. If symptoms don’t improve, or if it’s your first time experiencing these symptoms, seek medical care right away or go to the emergency room because asthma attacks can become life-threatening.

Asthma diagnosis

Your healthcare provider may diagnose asthma with some or all of the following exams and lung function tests (Hashmi, 2021):

  • Physical exam: They’ll gather information about your medical history as well as listen to your heart and lungs to assess the causes of your symptoms.
  • Spirometry test: This test is commonly used to assess lung function and confirm asthma. During the test, you take a deep breath and exhale forcefully into the spirometry device. This measures your lung capacity, including the amount of air you breathe and your rate of breathing. 
  • Peak expiratory flow rate (PEFR): This test assesses the peak flow meter or the maximum airflow rate during a forceful exhale. It shows the airflow through larger airways.  
  • Allergy or immunology testing: If you have a history of allergies or your doctor suspects allergic asthma, they may recommend allergy testing. Sometimes you may be referred to an allergist to help find and manage allergies. 
  • Fractional exhaled nitric oxide (FeNO) test: This uncommonly used test measures the amount of nitric oxide gas in your exhaled breath. High levels indicate inflammation in your airways.

Asthma treatments

Your healthcare provider will work with you to create a plan to manage your asthma symptoms and help prevent asthma attacks. There is currently no cure for asthma. Still, there are options to help you reduce the number and severity of symptoms. 

Quick-acting and short-term symptoms relief

The first line of treatment is usually medications that relax the airways, called bronchodilators. Types of asthma medicines in this category include beta-2 agonists and muscarinic antagonists. 

One of the most commonly used asthma medications is albuterol, a type of short-acting beta-agonist. Albuterol inhalers are sometimes called rescue inhalers because they relax the smooth muscles in your small airways, making it easier to breathe (Hashmi, 2021). 

Other types of short-term relief medications used in asthma treatment include (Hashmi, 2021):

  • Oral, injections, or intravenous (IV) corticosteroids: These are anti-inflammatory medications that may help reduce symptoms of an asthma attack.
  • Short-acting anticholinergics: These are other types of medication used to relax the airways. When used alone, they’re typically less effective than beta-agonists and often recommended if other types are poorly tolerated.

If you experience asthma attacks, your healthcare provider will help you develop an asthma action plan, including an asthma inhaler. 

Long-term control

Your healthcare provider may recommend daily medications if you regularly experience flare-ups or severe asthma. 

Corticosteroids help reduce the amount of inflammation in the body and may help with asthma control. Oral pills or inhaled corticosteroids may be prescribed to reduce symptoms. Typically, low-dose inhalers are prescribed first to keep the effects of the steroids in the lungs (Hashmi, 2021). 

Another medication that could be prescribed is long-acting bronchodilators, like formoterol (McCracken, 2017). These medications are also used to manage the symptoms of other lung conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

It may take time for you and your healthcare provider to find the best treatment plan for your symptoms. Sometimes your provider may adjust the types and doses of medication until they find the right combination.

Preventing asthma symptoms

While you may not be able to prevent asthma symptoms fully, you may be able to help reduce your asthma symptoms and asthma attacks by:

  • Avoiding triggers
  • Using an indoor air filter
  • Adding an indoor humidifier
  • Cleaning your house regularly to minimize dust and mold
  • Using a scarf or mask to cover your nose and mouth in cold weather
  • Using short-acting medications, like albuterol inhalers, before exercise to prevent symptoms (ask your healthcare provider if this is the right option for you)

When to see a healthcare provider

If you suspect asthma or regularly experience shortness of breath, contact your healthcare provider since this could be a sign of asthma or another lung disease. Sometimes, your triggers and severity of symptoms will change. Discuss any changes with your doctor for possible adjustments to your treatment plan. 

Seek medical attention right away if you’re experiencing an asthma attack and it doesn’t improve after using your emergency relief inhaler, or you don’t have access to an asthma inhaler. Asthma is a chronic condition that can significantly impact your daily life. Still, with an effective treatment plan most people experience symptoms less often and continue to participate in the activities they want to do.

References

  1. Hashmi, M. F., Tariq, M., & Cataletto, M. E. (2021). Asthma. [Updated Aug 14, 2021]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved on Sept. 29, 2021 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK430901/ 
  2. McCracken, J. L., Veeranki, S. P., Ameredes, B. T., & Calhoun, W. J. (2017). Diagnosis and management of asthma in adults: a review. The Journal Of The American Medical Association, 318(3), 279–290. doi: 10.1001/jama.2017.8372. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28719697/ 
  3. Mims, J. W. (2015). Asthma: definitions and pathophysiology. International Forum Of Allergy & Rhinology, 5 Suppl 1, S2–S6. doi: 10.1002/alr.21609. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26335832/