All about asthma

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Asthma is a common ailment—1 in 13 people in the United States have it according to the CDC. Over the past several years, the incidence of asthma has been increasing, too. Fortunately, asthma can be managed with proper prevention of triggers and medications.

SIU Medicine encourages you to become more informed about asthma so you'll know how to recognize it in yourself or your child and to seek appropriate treatment.

What is asthma?

Asthma is a chronic condition that affects your airways. It's believed to be related to inflammation and the immune system. Asthma causes airways to narrow and can also lead to an excess amount of mucus in the airways. As you might imagine, this can make breathing very difficult.

Certain situations or environmental factors may trigger or worsen asthma, including:

  • Exercise (especially in cold and dry air)
  • Chemical fumes, dust, smoke, gases and other workplace irritants
  • Allergens, including dust, mold, pet dander and waste

Some people are at greater risk of developing asthma: individuals who are overweight, who smoke or are exposed to secondhand smoke, and who have allergies like hay fever. Additionally, those who are pregnant with asthma could have worsening symptoms during the course of their pregnancy.

Symptoms of asthma

Asthma symptoms are typically mild and irritating. However, for others, they can become life-threatening (a so-called "asthma attack"). 

Shortness of breath, tightness or pain in the chest, wheezing as you breathe out, or coughing are common signs of asthma. Signs of a potentially deadly asthma attack include no improvement in symptoms even after using a rescue inhaler, rapidly worsening shortness of breath or wheezing, inability to speak more than a few words at a time, and shortness of breath even after doing very minimal physical activity (or even while sitting or laying down). Anyone with these severe symptoms of asthma should call 911 and seek emergency medical attention right away. 

Sadly, asthma left untreated can lead to serious or even fatal consequences. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, about 10 people in the United States die every day due to asthma complications. Many of these deaths are preventable with early and appropriate intervention. 

Diagnosis and treatment of asthma

Doctors use physical examination, medical history and a variety of tests including pulmonary function tests to confirm a diagnosis of asthma and rule out any other conditions that may look similar, including seasonal allergies and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Based on a patient's presentation, they will likely be diagnosed with one of four classes of asthma severity:

  • Intermittent: Symptoms are mild and last up to two days per week and up to two nights per month
  • Mild persistent: Symptoms occur more than twice per week but no more than once per day. Nighttime awakenings do not exceed more than 3-4 times a month.
  • Moderate persistent: Symptoms occur daily and on more than one night per week but not nightly.
  • Severe persistent: Symptoms occur throughout most days and often nightly.

For most people, vaporized medications breathed in through a device called an inhaler are a necessary part of their asthma management. These medications may lower inflammation, help dilate (open) the airways, and induce other beneficial changes. They include long-acting drugs to manage symptoms over time and fast-acting drugs to provide quick relief during asthma attacks. Lifestyle modification and medical management of other conditions are also beneficial. 

If you need help managing asthma symptoms, contact SIU Medicine at 217-545-8000. We can connect you with a family/internal medicine physician, pulmonologist pediatrician, or other health care provider who can assist you with an individualized treatment plan.

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