The word asthma comes from the Greek word aazein, which means "sharp breath." Asthma is a chronic, inflammatory disease of the lungs in which the airways narrow, often in response to a trigger such as exposure to an allergen, exercise, or emotional stress.
Common asthma triggers include allergens (dust, pollens, molds, animal dander), medications, air pollution, industrial chemical compounds, early childhood infections, perfumes and strong smells, cold air, exercise, and emotional stress.
Since asthma symptoms can closely resemble symptoms of other respiratory problems like emphysema and bronchitis, asthma often goes undiagnosed for long periods of time. Some people live with asthma for years, thinking they have a bad cough or chronic bronchitis. Doctors diagnose asthma with laboratory tests such as spirometry (which measures the air inhaled and exhaled from the lungs), peak flow monitoring (which measures how much air a person can expel from the lungs), chest x-rays, blood tests, and allergy skin tests.
When an asthma attack is brought on by a trigger, muscles around the airways become inflamed, swollen, and constricted, making it difficult to breathe. Excess mucus in the airways makes it even more difficult to breathe.
Allergic asthma describes asthma that is triggered by an allergen. Approximately 60% of asthma sufferers have allergic asthma.
The best way to treat asthma is to avoid the allergens or triggers that bring on an asthma attack. See our allergy solution guides to learn how to avoid the following allergens: Dust Mites, Mold, Pollen, and Pet Dander.However, allergen avoidance is not always possible. Drug therapy consists of anti-inflammatory drugs to reduce inflammation and swelling and bronchodilators to open up constricted airways. Metered-dose inhalers are the most common asthma drug delivery system. Dry powder inhalers are available for small children, but not all asthma medicines are available in dry powder form. Young children also often use a nebulizer, which allows the asthma sufferer to inhale the medicine using a mouthpiece or facemask.
Some people stop having asthma attacks as they get older, but in the overwhelming majority of cases, asthma is a chronic disease that requires treatment. If you have asthma, your best plan is to learn how to manage the asthma, avoid triggers, and move on with your life.
Asthma is not a psychological problem; it is a physiological disease. In some people, however, emotional stress can trigger an asthma attack.
Yes after first consulting with their doctor. Everyone who can exercise will benefit from it. Asthma sufferers may need to take special precautions when exercising in cold weather or during allergy season, and using a bronchodilator before exercise may prevent exercise-induced symptoms. Most asthma sufferers are able to live an active life with proper management and treatment.
It is very important for asthma sufferers to closely monitor their peak flow readings, which measures how much air they can expel from their lungs. If peak flow meter readings drop 20% or more, then the asthma sufferer should consult a physician. Other signs of worsening asthma include the need to use a medicine more often and the development of symptoms at night when none previously existed.
As many as half of all children between 2 and 10 outgrow their childhood asthma, but many find that their asthma symptoms return later in life.
Parents of children with asthma can contact the Allergy and Asthma Network / Mothers of Asthmatics, Inc. The AAN/MA has support groups and chapters across the country.