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Asthma: Symptoms, Causes, Risk Factors, and Treatment

Asthma is one of the most common respiratory disorders that affects the individuals of all ages, especially children. Presently, there is no cure for asthma, but symptomatic treatment would help in reducing the severity of the condition.

What is Asthma?

Asthma is a chronic condition, which results from inflammation and narrowing of bronchial tubes (through which air enter and leave the lungs). There are two types of asthma that include allergic asthma and nonallergic asthma.

  • Allergic asthma or extrinsic asthma caused by exposure to allergens, like food, mold, pollen, and dust.
  • Nonallergic asthma or intrinsic asthma caused by stress, exercise, exposure to extreme weather, illnesses such as cold or flu, exposure to irritants in the air (smoke, strong odors and chemical fumes) or due to certain medications.


What are the Signs and Symptoms of Asthma?

 The symptoms of asthma vary from person to person, which include the following:

  • Breathing difficulty
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Wheezing
  • A persistent cough (especially at night or during exercise) 

If left untreated, symptoms of asthma can worsen leading to life-threatening complications. Mild episodes of asthma may last for few minutes can be relieved spontaneously by using medications. In case of severe asthma, the symptoms may last from hours to days.

A patient with asthma may experience the symptoms mostly in the night, early in the morning, or immediately after any activity. The symptoms occur as a result of narrowing of the airways. If the condition is well-controlled with medications and specific lifestyle changes, the patient may experience occasional asthma symptoms.

What are the Causes of Asthma?

The exact cause of asthma is unknown. However, research shows that an individual is prone to asthma in case of:

  • Family history of asthma, eczema or any allergies
  • History of bronchitis
  • Premature birth
  • Low birth weight
  • Smoking during pregnancy

What are the Risk factors for Asthma Symptoms?

Asthma can be triggered by various factors. The factors that may trigger asthma symptoms include the following:

  • Viral respiratory tract infections
  • Exposure to environmental allergens (such as house dust mites or animal allergens)
  • Exercise
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease
  • Obesity or overweight
  • Occupational exposure
  • Emotional factors such as stress
  • Exposure to environmental pollutants (tobacco smoke)
  • Chronic sinusitis
  • Use of aspirin or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs 

What are the Complications of Asthma?

If asthma is left untreated, it may lead to following complications:

  • Permanent narrowing of airways (bronchial tubes)
  • Severe asthma attack
  • Stress, anxiety or depression
  • Lung infections
  • Delay in growth or puberty in children
  • Signs and symptoms interfering with sleep
  • Side effects due to use of medications for long-term

Timely medical intervention and proper use of medications help in preventing short-term and long-term complications caused by asthma.

How is Asthma Diagnosed?

The doctor initially obtains medical history which includes the symptoms experienced by the patient, known triggers of asthma, activity level, list of medications, work environment, and diet. After reviewing the medical and medication history, the doctor performs a physical examination which includes lung function tests to detect the abnormalities during the process of respiration.The doctor might also recommend the following tests to check the lung function:

  1. Spirometry: This test helps to determine the extent of narrowing of airways. Spirometry involves in checking the volume of air that can be exhaled after a deep breath.
  2.  Peak Flow : It is a device used to measure how well air moves out from the lungs. Also, it helps to measure the extent of narrowing before the onset of any asthma symptoms.
  3. Chest Radiography : Chest X-ray helps in determining the causes of wheezing. It is mostly used for the initial diagnosis of bronchial asthma. It also helps to rule out other complications such as pneumonia.

Other tests to diagnose asthma may include the following:

  • Methacholine challenge
  • Nitric oxide test
  • Allergy testing
  • Sputum eosinophils
  • Provocative testing (in case of exercise and cold-induced asthma)

Based on the severity, asthma is categorized into following stages:

ClassificationSeverity of Signs and Symptoms
Mild intermittent asthmaSymptoms, such as wheezing and coughing last for 2 days a week
Night-time flare-ups occur for two nights a month
Mild persistent Symptoms occur more than twice a week and less than once in a day
Nighttime flare-ups occur more than twice in a month and less than once in a week
Moderate persistentSymptoms occur at least once in a day
Nighttime flare-ups persist or last for several days
Severe persistentSymptoms occur daily and frequently

How is Asthma Treated?

 Usually, the treatment for asthma involves being aware of the triggers, tracking the process of breathing and adopting certain measures to avoid exposure to triggers. In case of flare-ups, an individual must use an inhaler for quick relief. The doctor prescribes the medications based on the patient’s age, the severity of symptoms, and type of triggers.

In most of the cases, preventive and long-term management would be beneficial in reducing the inflammation that causes symptoms. Bronchodilators (as inhalers) which open the swollen airways causing breathing difficulty provide quick relief.

The doctor usually prescribes long-term asthma control medications which effectively reduces asthma flare-ups. These medications include the following:

  • Inhaled corticosteroids (fluticasone, budesonide, beclomethasone)
  • Leukotriene modifiers (montelukast, zafirlukast)
  • Long-acting beta agonists (salmeterol and formoterol)
  • Combination inhalers (fluticasone-salmeterol, budesonide-formoterol, and formoterol-mometasone)

Medications for quick relief of asthma flare-ups include the following:

  • Short-acting beta agonists (albuterol and levalbuterol)
  • Ipratropium
  • Oral and intravenous corticosteroids (prednisone and methylprednisolone)

In some cases, the doctor may prescribe anti-allergic medications if the symptoms worsen due to allergies. These medications include the following:

  • Immunotherapy (Allergy shots)
  • Omalizumab (for patients with severe asthma)

If the symptoms of severe asthma don’t improve even after treatment with inhaled corticosteroids or other medications, the doctor may recommend for a surgical intervention called bronchial thermoplasty.

Asthma Prevention and Home Remedies:

 Asthma can be prevented at home. Following are the measures to be adopted to prevent asthma:

  • Use the air conditioner to lower humidity and reduce exposure to dust mites
  • Prevent the development mold spores
  • Cover the nose and mouth in case of extreme cold conditions
  • Perform regular exercise to strengthen and improve the functioning of heart and lungs
  • Maintain a healthy weight to reduce other health complications

Avoid the intake of foods that can cause heartburn

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