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What are the Signs and Symptoms of Asthma?

Friday 22 October 2021
6 minute(s) read

Table of Contents

I. What is Asthma?

II. Symptoms of Asthma

III. Types of Asthma

IV. Diagnosing Asthma

V. Medications and Treatment Options

What is Asthma?

Asthma is a common lung disease that can affect people of all ages. It causes swelling in the airways, making the airways narrow and produce excess mucus. The trademark symptom of asthma is the wheezing that occurs when the narrowed airways make it difficult to breathe.

Asthma isn’t always serious, and for many people, asthma is nothing more than a minor annoyance. Others may have severe asthma and experience life-threatening asthma attacks. Regardless of the severity of your symptoms, asthma treatment medications like Flovent are recommended to keep asthma under control.

Several factors can contribute to the development of asthma; this lung condition is the result of a combination of occupational, environmental, and genetic factors. If asthma runs in your family, or you have a genetic tendency to develop certain allergies (atopy), you may be prone to developing asthma.

a man coughing into his hand

But not all asthma stems from allergic reactions. Air pollution and exposure to airborne chemical substances can damage the lungs and lead to a viral lung infection. Those who work hands-on jobs may be subjected to different fumes, wood debris, mold, or second-hand smoke—all of which can irritate the lungs and cause asthma.

If you have asthma, you may not experience symptoms constantly. Instead, you will likely have asthma-free periods interrupted by asthma attacks and flare-ups. Asthma attacks can be triggered by physical activity (exercise-induced asthma) or allergies. Part of your asthma treatment will be to identify and avoid your triggers. Read on to learn more about the different types, symptoms, and treatment options for asthma. [1]    

Symptoms of Asthma

Not everyone who has asthma will experience the same symptoms. Several asthma symptoms overlap with other lung conditions such as COPD. Generally, common asthma symptoms may include:

  • Chest tightness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing during exhale (common in children)
  • Insomnia caused by coughing, wheezing, or difficulty breathing
  • Chest pain or wheezing attacks worsened by a cold or the flu

These symptoms are generally manageable with an asthma inhaler, but you should see your doctor any time your symptoms worsen. Your asthma may be worsening if you experience:

  • The need to use a quick-relief inhaler frequently
  • Symptoms affecting you more often
  • Increasing difficulty breathing (measured by a peak flow meter)
  • No improvement after the use of a quick-relief inhaler

Symptoms of asthma also tend to change over time. It’s important to regularly discuss your symptoms with your doctor so that your treatment stays up to date and adapts to new symptoms. Living with asthma requires continuous monitoring for long-term control. [2]

broccoli and cigarettes arranged in the shape of the lungs

Types of Asthma

It is easier to manage asthma symptoms if you know the type of asthma affecting you. Treating the underlying cause is the most effective way of relieving symptoms. Asthma is typically divided into the following categories:

  • Adult-onset asthma: There are several possible explanations for asthma that develops during adulthood. For example, asthma may have already been present, but your triggers were avoided for many years. Similarly, asthma may be “unmasked” by a viral infection. [3]
  • Allergic asthma: This type of asthma is typically triggered by pollen, dust, pet dander, and other allergens. Allergic asthma symptoms may be exacerbated by other factors like stress, weather conditions, and certain food additives. [4]
  • Non-allergic asthma: Asthma not caused by an allergic reaction may be caused by lung damage from environmental factors. Non-allergic asthma can be triggered by extreme weather, underlying illnesses, and certain medications. [5]
  • Occupational asthma: As the name suggests, occupational asthma is caused by irritants common to certain workplaces. Occupational asthma tends to be caused by chemical fumes, dust, or a combination of poor air quality and air circulation. Cleaning products, latex gloves, grain and flour, and insects are all known to cause occupational asthma. [6]

Diagnosing Asthma

Diagnosing asthma involves several steps. At your appointment, your doctor will start by asking you a series of questions to understand your personal and medical history.

You will likely be asked about the symptoms you have been experiencing recently, including any insight into your lifestyle habits and how they may be contributing to your condition. Your doctor will then take your answers and determine if you are at risk of asthma. Certain conditions, such as eczema, may make an asthma diagnosis more likely.

a medical inhaler

Your doctor will move on to a physical exam if they think you likely have asthma. A physical exam typically involves inspecting the ears, nose, eyes, skin, throat, and chest area. Depending on the situation, your doctor may also order an X-ray of your lungs and sinuses. Following a physical exam, your lung function may be put to the test. The following tests may be administered:

  • Spirometry Test: This test involves blowing into a device called a spirometer. This test measures how much air you can inhale and exhale. Results from a spirometry test are helpful for determining if you have asthma.
  • Peak Flow Meter Test: This test uses a handheld device to measure how well your lungs expel air. A peak flow meter is sensitive to changes in your airways. This meter is a remarkable tool that can indicate changes to your airways before asthma symptoms occur.
  • FeNO Test: FeNO stands for fractional exhaled nitric oxide, which is present in your breath if inflammation is present in your airways. A FeNO test can determine the severity of inflammation in your airways.
  • Provocation Test: Also called a trigger test, a provocation test is often used to confirm an asthma diagnosis. Typically, your doctor will conduct a spirometry test before and after you are exposed to a certain irritant. Your doctor may also use exercise to provoke a response and measurement. [7]

Medications and Treatment Options

If an asthma diagnosis is confirmed, it is important to know your options for treatment. Asthma medications are usually categorized as long-term, quick-relief, anti-inflammatory, and allergy medications.

Inhaled corticosteroids are a common type of medication used for long-term symptom control. Long-term asthma medications need to be taken regularly to control chronic symptoms and prevent asthma attacks. Long-term asthma treatments are considered the most important for managing symptoms.

Quick-relief inhalers like Atrovent are taken as needed to treat asthma attacks. This type of rescue medication should always be carried on your person for emergencies. If you have allergic asthma, you may be prescribed medications to reduce your body’s sensitivity to your triggers. [8]

Most asthma medications need to be combined with lifestyle adjustments to maximize their effectiveness. Living with asthma can be difficult, but the right medications and treatment plan can make it easier. Long-term control of your asthma symptoms can get you right back into doing the activities you love most. Speak with your doctor today about your lung health.

The content in this article is intended for informational purposes only. This website does not provide medical advice. In all circumstances, you should always seek the advice of your physician and/or other qualified health professionals(s) for drug, medical condition, or treatment advice. The content provided on this website is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.