Preventive Healthcare

Asthma – Symptoms, Causes, Types, Diagnosis & Treatment

Bronchial asthma, more commonly known as asthma, is a disease that severely affects your lungs. This condition is chronic and requires continued medication and treatment. Asthma in its most severe form can result in an asthma attack, which, if not treated, can prove to be fatal. An asthma attack can be caused either by bronchospasm—resulting in the constriction of the muscles around the airways; inflammation of the lining of the airways—making it difficult to breathe, or excess mucus production that clogs the airways.

If your asthma isn’t controlled, it might result in a flare-up, or what is medically called an exacerbation. Thankfully, a little awareness and medical attention can be beneficial in controlling asthma symptoms to a large extent.

Types of Asthma

Asthma symptoms in adults and children may vary depending on the type and cause. Asthma is mainly differentiated into two types:

  1. Adult-onset: This type kicks in only after age 18 or in adults.
  2. Pediatric: Also known as childhood asthma, this type usually starts before age 5, even in toddlers and infants.

Based on the causes and the severity of asthma symptoms, it can be further divided into

  • Intermittent Asthma: The asthma flares are intermittent. This means they can come and go while you feel quite normal in between the attacks.
  • Persistent Asthma: As the name suggests, in this type, the individual consistently suffers from asthma symptoms.

There are still other types of asthma, such as,

  • Occupational Asthma: If you work in an environment full of allergens or irritants, you may develop this type of asthma.
  • Asthma-COPD Overlap Syndrome: ACOS, in short, is actually a combination of asthma and COPD, or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. Together, they can make breathing extremely difficult.
  • Exercise-Induced Asthma: Also known as exercise-induced bronchospasm. This is triggered by unregulated or excessive exercise.
  • Aspirin-Induced Asthma: AIA, in short, is usually very severe and triggered by the ingestion of aspirin.
  • Nocturnal Asthma: In this type, asthma symptoms tend to worsen at night.
  • Cough-Variant Asthma: CVA, in short, this type manifests classic asthma symptoms like wheezing and shortness of breath or a persistent dry cough.

Symptoms and Causes of Asthma

The most common asthma symptom is wheezing, or the whistling or squealing sound of your breath when you get an asthma attack. Other asthma symptoms may include

  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Panic or anxiety
  • Rapid breathing
  • Frequent contraction of infections
  • Fatigue

Severe asthma symptoms that may call for an emergency include

  • Gasping for breath or air
  • Disorientation or confusion
  • Dizziness
  • Pale lips
  • Pale fingernails
  • Difficulty walking
  • Difficulty talking
  • Blue lips

Risk Factors of Asthma

Many factors can cause asthma. But some of them increase the risk of an occurrence. These include

  • Allergies: Allergic asthma symptoms are common in both adults and children.
  • Environment: Exposure to certain environmental substances such as toxins, fumes, smoke, and allergens can also induce asthma.
  • Genetics: If you are from a family with a history of asthma or other allergies, you are at a higher risk of getting asthma.
  • Respiratory Infections: Respiratory infections like RSV, or Respiratory Syncytial Virus, can prevent the full development of the lungs in young children, which can later cause asthma.

Asthma Triggers

Patients suffering from asthma demonstrate some common elements that may trigger asthma attacks. Some common asthma triggers include.

  • Air pollution
  • Dust mites
  • Exercise
  • Mould
  • Pest infestation
  • Dried skin flakes on house pets
  • Tobacco smoke
  • Strong chemicals
  • Certain smells
  • Environmental exposure to allergens

Diagnosis of Asthma

Asthma is typically not diagnosed through a single test. Rather, the doctor uses a set of criteria to determine whether you have asthma or not. These can be

  • Your health history
  • Family health history
  • A physical exam where your breathing is assessed
  • Allergen tests to identify allergic reactions
  • Breathing tests or PFTs (Pulmonary Function Tests) measure the inflow and outflow of air in your lungs

Doctors usually refrain from administering any tests on children since the readings may not be accurate. Instead, they prescribe medication to assess if the symptoms improve. In adults, on the other hand, a bronchodilator or other asthma medication may be prescribed to see if symptoms improve.

Asthma Treatment

Depending on the causes and severity, the treatment for asthma symptoms is determined.

1. Quick-Relief Treatment

This includes medications used to attain quick relief from an asthma attack. These may be

  • Bronchodilators: They work instantly to reduce the muscle tightness around the airways and help normalise breathing. Usually, it is advised to take the specific bronchodilator as specified by the physician. These are usually taken with the help of a nebulizer or inhaler.
  • First aid: This is usually done as a first aid response to a person undergoing an asthma attack. The individual is advised to sit upright and use a generic bronchodilator.

2. Long-Term Medications

Individuals suffering from severe asthma symptoms are generally prescribed long-term medications. While they may not help to prevent immediate symptoms, they do help manage the severity in the long run when consumed as prescribed. These include

  • Anti-Inflammatory Medicines: These are taken with corticosteroids or an inhaler. They help reduce swelling and prevent excess mucus production.
  • Anticholinergics: Usually taken daily along with anti-inflammatories, which help stop the tightening of muscles around the airways.
  • Bronchodilators: These are long-acting dilators that are taken along with anti-inflammatory medications.

3. Biologics

Biologics target specific antibodies in the body, which, in turn, disrupt the pathway leading to asthma-inducing inflammation. This course of treatment is usually prescribed when other medications are unable to control asthma triggers. These medications are either injected or infused under medical supervision.

4. Bronchial Thermoplasty

This special treatment uses an electrode to heat the airways inside the lungs. This reduces the size of the muscles surrounding the area and prevents tightening. This is a minimally invasive procedure that can only be performed by a medical practitioner in a hospital setup.

Asthma is very manageable and, to some extent, curable. You need to be aware of asthma symptoms beforehand to act correctly when and if a trigger occurs, resulting in an asthma attack.

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