Man taking asthma medication through an inhaler

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Asthma: Signs, symptoms and treatment

  • More than 8 million adults and nearly 2.3 million children suffered asthma attacks in 2019.
  • According to the Centers for Disease, Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 8 percent of U.S. adults have asthma.
  • Asthma is more common among males than females.

Asthma is a chronic respiratory condition affecting the airways in the lungs. There isn’t a cure for asthma, but it is treatable. Symptoms can be mild, moderate or severe. If asthma interferes with your favorite activities or quality of life and you’re looking for answers, this article is for you.

Signs and symptoms of asthma

Early asthma symptoms include:

  • chest tightness
  • coughing
  • wheezing
  • shortness of breath

Signs of an asthma attack

An asthma attack is a sudden respiratory reaction caused by asthma triggers. Many asthmatics know the feeling. Your lungs swell and airways shrink, making it difficult to breathe.

Now you’re coughing, wheezing and your chest feels tight from constriction of the airways and mucus buildup. Treat your early symptoms right away to avoid a severe attack.

Other asthma attack warning signs include:

  • a persistent cough
  • severe wheezing
  • difficulty talking
  • feeling week
  • a dry mouth
  • a runny nose
  • a headache
  • feeling anxious
  • blue lips or fingernails
  • dark circles under your eyes

When to see a doctor 

Contact your provider if you experience asthma symptoms and haven’t been diagnosed. They can help you create an asthma management plan to control your symptoms and prevent attacks. During an asthma attack, it’s critical to get asthma treatment right away. Use your rescue inhaler, nebulizer or other necessary medications and get medical attention immediately if your symptoms worsen.

Can masks reduce asthma hospitalizations? 

According to the CDC, people with moderate-to-severe uncontrolled asthma are more likely to be hospitalized from COVID-19. While asthmatics aren’t at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19, the virus can complicate asthma symptoms.

Mask-wearing, proper hygiene, the COVID-19 vaccine and physical distancing can protect you from the virus and prevent hospitalization from asthma-related complications.

Diagnosis

A variety of respiratory conditions can provoke breathing issues. A provider can confirm the cause of your symptoms and rule out other conditions such as bronchitis and sinusitis. Tell your provider if you have a family history of asthma.

Asthma is diagnosed using methods such as:

  • a spirometry test
  • chest X-ray
  • a lung function test
  • an allergy test
  • a physical exam.

Asthma triggers 

Many common asthma triggers can worsen your symptoms. Your best defense is prevention. Avoid your triggers when possible and take asthma treatment medications recommended by your provider.

Types of asthma 

Each type of asthma varies in signs, symptoms and treatments. Asthma symptoms can be prevented by avoiding common triggers whenever possible. Your provider may recommend taking allergy and asthma medications to treat your symptoms.

 

  • Childhood and adult-onset asthma. According to national asthma data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), asthma impacts 7.7 percent of adults and 8.4 percent of children. Children and adults experience the same symptoms caused by many similar triggers.

    Asthma is often diagnosed during childhood at 5 years of age or older. When you become more sensitive to allergens over time, it can lead to adult-onset asthma. Adults often experience heightened allergen sensitivity and more persistent symptoms with age. 

  • Allergic asthma (extrinsic). Allergic asthma often occurs when your seasonal allergies and asthma collide, causing chest tightness, coughing, wheezing or shortness of breath.

    Extrinsic reactions are often triggered by pollen, dust mites, animal dander, mold, irritants and other allergens. Many people with asthma also experience allergy symptoms.

  • Non-allergic asthma (intrinsic). Non-allergic asthma is typically brought on by cold or dry air, anxiety, exercise, smoke and respiratory infections such as the cold or flu. Intrinsic asthma signs commonly emerge later in life. Breathing-related symptoms and treatment for intrinsic and extrinsic asthma tend to be mostly the same.

  • Exercise-induced asthma (bronchoconstriction). While strenuous exercise can take anyone’s breath away, many asthmatics are more prone to activity-induced breathing challenges.

    Your workout may cause shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing or chest tightness. Creating an asthma management plan and using a prescription asthma inhaler can help you stay active without experiencing severe symptoms.

  • Asthma-COPD overlap syndrome. The condition occurs when people have asthma and COPD at the same time. Asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are commonly mistaken because some respiratory diseases have overlapping symptoms. There are vital differences between asthma and COPD symptoms.

    Asthma typically flares up from certain triggers, is diagnosed during childhood, is easier to manage and the symptoms aren’t always persistent. People with COPD often don’t experience symptoms until after age 40 and many have a long-term history of smoking.

  • Occupational asthma. Symptoms and treatments for occupational asthma are nearly identical to allergic asthma. Occupational asthma develops when you are exposed to irritants in the workplace, often triggering an allergic response or breathing episode. Common substances include gases, dust, chemicals, metals and respiratory irritants.

Treatment

Treatment options are recommended based on your asthma type, severity, age and triggers. Your provider will help you create an asthma management plan to control your symptoms and determine which medications work best for you.

Asthma can be an expensive condition to manage. Find out if you qualify for the Prescription Assistance Program.

Short-term asthma relief 

Short-term (rescue) asthma medications can quickly treat moderate to severe symptoms or an asthma attack. Some short-term asthma medications are recommended before exercise to prevent exercise-induced asthma. 

  • Bronchodilators. Bronchodilators can treat several respiratory conditions and are usually inhaled through the mouth. Short-acting bronchodilators should only be taken when your symptoms flare up.  
  • Anticholinergics. Anticholinergics are used to treat asthma and COPD symptoms. The medication quickly stops your airways from constricting, giving more room for oxygen to flow.
  • Oral and intravenous corticosteroids. Corticosteroids are often used for people with severe asthma. You should only use the medication as needed.

Long-term asthma relief 

Long-term asthma treatment medications are taken daily to control your symptoms, lower your chances of having an asthma attack and prevent hospitalization.

  • Inhaled corticosteroids. These steroid medications are taken through an inhaler to treat asthma symptoms by decreasing inflammation.
  • Leukotriene modifiers. This oral medication can treat asthma and allergy symptoms by reducing inflammation.
  • Theophylline. Theophylline is an oral medication used to complement other asthma medications to treat asthma and COPD. It’s not a common treatment option but can be used when other medications don’t control your symptoms.

A healthy lifestyle, routine visits with your provider, avoiding triggers and medication can ease your asthma symptoms. Schedule an appointment or a virtual visit to discuss asthma treatment options right for you. Your provider may refer you to an immunology, allergy or respiratory specialist for long-term care. 

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