Asthma is a disease that causes the airways of the lungs to swell and narrow, leading to wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, and coughing.
Asthma is caused by inflammation (swelling) in the airways. When an asthma attack occurs, the lining of the air passages swells and the muscles surrounding the airways become tight. This reduces the amount of air that can pass through the airway.
In persons who have sensitive airways, asthma symptoms can be triggered by breathing in substances called allergens or triggers.
Common asthma triggers include:
Most people with asthma have attacks separated by symptom-free periods. Some people have long-term shortness of breath with episodes of increased shortness of breath. Either wheezing or a cough may be the main symptom.
Asthma attacks can last for minutes to days, and can become dangerous if the airflow is severely blocked.
Emergency symptoms that need prompt medical help:
Other symptoms that may occur:
Exams and Tests
The doctor or nurse will use a stethoscope to listen to your lungs. Wheezing or other asthma-related sounds may be heard.
Tests that may be ordered include:
The goals of treatment are:
You and your doctor should work as a team to manage your asthma. Follow your doctor's instructions on taking medicines, eliminating asthma triggers, and monitoring symptoms.
MEDICINES FOR ASTHMA
There are two kinds of medicines for treating asthma:
These are also called maintenance or control medicines. They are used to prevent symptoms in people with moderate to severe asthma. You must take them every day for them to work. Take them even when you feel OK.
Some long-term medicines are breathed in (inhaled), such as steroids and long-acting beta-agonists. Others are taken by mouth (orally). Your doctor will prescribe the right medicine for you.
These are also called rescue medicines. They are taken:
Tell your doctor if you are using quick-relief medicines twice a week or more. Your asthma may not be under control and your doctor may need to change your dose of daily control drugs.
Quick-relief medicines include:
A severe asthma attack requires a checkup by a doctor. You may also need a hospital stay. There, you will likely be given oxygen, breathing assistance, and medications given through a vein (IV).
ASTHMA CARE AT HOME
Asthma action plans are written documents for managing asthma. An asthma action plan should include:
A peak flow meter is a simple device to measure how quickly you can move air out of your lungs.
There is no cure for asthma, although symptoms sometimes improve over time. With proper self-management and medical treatment, most people with asthma can lead normal lives.
The complications of asthma can be severe, and may include:
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call for an appointment with your health care provider if asthma symptoms develop.
Call your health care provider or go to the emergency room if:
Go to the emergency room if these symptoms occur:
You can reduce asthma symptoms by avoiding triggers and substances that irritate the airways.
Lugogo N, Que LG, Fertel D, Kraft M. Asthma. In: Mason RJ, Broaddus VC, Martin TR, et al., eds. Murray & Nadel's Textbook of Respiratory Medicine. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2010:chap 38.
National Asthma Education and Prevention Program Expert Panel Report 3: Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Asthma. Rockville, MD. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, US Dept of Health and Human Services; 2007. NIH publication 08-4051. Available at http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/guidelines/asthma/asthgdln.htm. Accessed May 14, 2014.
Nowak RM, Tokarski GF. Asthma. In: Marx JA, Hockberger RS, Walls RM, et al., eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Mosby; 2009:chap 71.
Review Date: 5/14/2014
Reviewed By: Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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