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Asthma is a condition that causes the airways of the lungs to swell and narrow, according to the National Library of Medicine (NLM). This process leads to wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, and coughing. In the U.S., 25 million people have asthma, and seven million of those are children.
Asthma is caused by inflammation or swelling in the airways. As a result, the lining of the air passages swells and the muscles around the airways tighten. Because less air can pass through the passages, breathing becomes more difficult. Attacks like these are caused by a number of allergens including mold, pollen, dust mites, cockroaches, and pet dander (minute scales that fall from skin and hair). Other causes include tobacco smoke; stress; changes in weather; respiratory infections such as the common cold; medicines such as aspirin; and even exercise. For most sufferers, these attacks are intermittent, with symptom-free periods in between. When someone does have an asthma attack, it can last anywhere from minutes to days. It is especially dangerous if the airflow is seriously blocked and breathing becomes difficult.
The following factors may increase the risk of asthma:
According to the Mayo Clinic, the first step in diagnosing asthma is a physical exam to rule out other possible conditions such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). Beyond that, there are several tests:
Still other procedures may be used, the NIH says, if your doctor needs more information before making an asthma diagnosis. These include:
Symptoms of asthma include:
Beyond these symptoms, experts say that more serious signs, for which emergency help is needed, include:
Usually, asthma is a chronic disease, but there may also be long periods of time when a sufferer shows no symptoms. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, in mild to moderate cases, asthma may gradually improve and some patients may become symptom-free eventually. Even in some severe cases, the medical center says, adults may have improvement depending on how much their lungs are obstructed and how quickly and effectively they can be treated.
But in about 10 percent of serious, persistent cases, the medical center says, there may be actual changes in the structure of the airway walls. That in turn can lead to more serious and even irreversible problems in lung function. This can happen despite aggressive treatment.
Asthma is a relatively uncommon cause of death, the medical center says, and most deaths like that are preventable. As long as the patient is treated properly, death is extremely rare. But it is nonetheless a frightening condition that interferes with daily activities and tasks.
In addition to regular doctor visits and taking your medicine as prescribed, there are many things you can do to make life as an asthma patient much more manageable.
The screening process usually begins with a doctor asking you about the symptoms you have and any allergies you might have experienced. This will likely be followed by a spirometry test, in which you blow into a mouthpiece connected to an instrument called a spirometer. This test measures how much air you can breathe in and breathe out. It also gauges the speed at which you can blow air out, or exhale. Depending on your result, your doctor may give you medicine and test you again later to see if your symptoms have improved. He or she may also perform several other diagnostic tests.
Unfortunately, there is no way to prevent asthma. But you can learn to manage it. The Mayo Clinic suggests the following:
There are a number of medicines for available for the treatment of asthma. It may take time for you and your doctor to determine which medicines work best for you, and in what dosage. Asthma medicines can be taken in pill form, but most are taken using a device called an inhaler. An inhaler allows the medicine to go directly to your lungs. Ask your health care provider to show you the right way to use an inhaler when you first start using it, and at every visit thereafter.
When an asthma attack occurs, it may be necessary to use quick-relief medications to re-open the airways and allow for regular breathing.
Don’t use quick relief medications instead of long-term control medicines, the NIH says, because these short-term solutions don’t reduce inflammation and may not help reduce the frequency of attacks.
Long-Term Control Medicines
Most people who have severe asthma need to take some form of regular medication to help prevent attacks. The most effective long-term medicines reduce inflammation of the airways. These medicines help prevent symptoms from starting but do not provide quick symptom relief.
Other long-term control medicines include:
The NIH experts advise that if your doctor prescribes a long-term control medicine, take it daily. If you stop, your symptoms will likely return or get worse. You should also talk to your doctor about the possible side effects of these various medications and the steps that can be taken to control or avoid them. Depending on the medication you’re taking, your doctor can check its level in your blood to determine the proper dosage. This is done with some medicines, including theophylline.
According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), there isn’t enough evidence to recommend any alternative remedy for the treatment of asthma. However, there have been studies that looked at acupuncture for the treatment of asthma. A few of the investigations showed some reduction in use of medication and improvement in quality of life, but most showed no difference between actual acupuncture and a sham procedure.
Several studies have looked at actual or true acupuncture – stimulation of specific points on the body with thin metal needles – for asthma. Although a few studies showed some reduction in medication use and improvements in symptoms and quality of life, the majority showed no difference between actual acupuncture and simulated or sham acupuncture on asthma symptoms. At this point, there is little evidence that acupuncture is an effective treatment for asthma.
Some researchers have examined the effect of breathing exercises that are designed to reduce hyperventilation and better balance carbon dioxide and oxygen in the blood. The NCCAM said that a review of seven randomized, controlled trials found a trend toward improvement of symptoms but not enough evidence for a definitive conclusion.
Here’s what the experts say you can do to manage your asthma:
The National institutes of Health recommends getting immediate medical help in case of these symptoms:
The first step is to see your primary care doctor if you suspect you have asthma. He or she may be able to help you handle your asthma without need for further referral. Your doctor may recommend that you see an asthma specialist if you need special tests to help diagnose asthma; if you’ve had a severe and possibly life-threatening asthma attack; you need more than one kind of medication or higher doses; or you are thinking about getting allergy treatments.
You can find asthma specialists in your health-care network or via a professional association, The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Click here to find out more.
The National Institute of Health recommends asking your doctor the following questions about asthma:
For more information on asthma, visit the following resources:
The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, has an excellent website that gives an overview of asthma as well as up-to-date videos on progress in research.
The Federal Centers for Disease Control provides information about asthma in children.
The Asthma and Allergy Association of America focuses on education and support groups across the country.
The American Lung Association provides strategies for keeping your environment free of asthma triggers and also keeps patients up to date on the newest asthma research.
The National Library for Medicine has a list of interactive tools consumers can use to better manage their condition.
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