What is asthma?
Asthma is a chronic, inflammatory disease of the airways, specifically of the bronchi. It is these tube-like structures that carry air from your throat (medically referred to as the trachea) to your lungs, and when inflamed, they make it difficult for air to pass through them. A person suffering from asthma usually experiences mild to severe symptoms, depending on the severity of their condition.
With asthma, the symptoms start with exposure to a trigger. The triggers can differ for every patient, but commonly, they are tobacco smoke, dust mites, and air pollution. The inflammation of the bronchi also results in different changes in the functioning of the airway. Additional to inflammation, the bronchi suffer increased secretion of mucus and muscle contraction, reducing the space that air goes through. This results in an obstructed airway and impaired airflow.
How does it affect you?
Asthma affects the airways that carry air to your lungs. With asthma, the tissue that lines the inside of the airway is over-sensitive to allergens. These allergens can be things you are exposed to every day, like dust, temperature changes, and pets, triggering an inflammatory reaction of the airway, and causing bronchi contraction, swelling on the inside, and increased mucus production. This can affect your everyday life since you may have to avoid these triggers to prevent asthma attacks. Also, after having an asthma attack, you are more likely to develop another one in the following days. You can develop severe symptoms or frequent asthma attacks if not treated properly.
Additionally, untreated asthma patients can develop complications of this disease. For example, asthma patients are more likely to develop respiratory failure, which can be fatal. On the other side, the excess mucus can become a perfect environment for bacteria to grow, causing pneumonia. In the long term, untreated asthma may result in airway remodeling. This means that the structure of the airway tissue changes due to chronic inflammation. This remodeling can cause chronic asthma and loss of pulmonary function.
How do you know if you have asthma?
The only way to know if you have asthma is to be diagnosed by a medical professional. If you think you may have asthma, you should visit a doctor. First, the doctor will ask about the symptoms you've been experiencing and your medical and family history. You should give your doctor any information considered relevant, like if you suffer from allergies or have close relatives suffering from asthma. Then, your doctor will perform a physical examination. This may include looking at your chest for signs of difficulty of breathing. Also, they will listen to your respiratory sounds with a stethoscope. This way they can find signs of obstructed airways.
A definite diagnosis of asthma can be made with spirometry. This is a breathing or pulmonary/lung function test. With this test, doctors measure the airflow in and out of your lungs. If you have a decreased airflow, doctors know you have an obstructed airway. Then, they can give you a bronchodilator to help dilate the airway. If the airflow increases after the bronchodilator, then you have a confirmed diagnosis of asthma.
What are the symptoms of asthma?
The symptoms of asthma present themselves in the form of flares or "asthma attacks". These are episodes in which the patient develops symptoms after being exposed to a trigger or allergen. The most common symptoms of asthma are:
- Wheezing: This is a high-pitched sound that sounds like a whistle that happens when you breathe due to the air passing through a closed airway.
- Chest pressure or tightness: this feeling can be very uncomfortable as it is the result of the extra effort you make to breathe or the contraction of the airways.
- Coughing: almost every patient experiences coughing during an asthma attack. It can have sputum due to increased mucus production in the bronchi.
- Difficulty breathing, or shortness of breath.
- Tiredness, weakness, or incapability to exercise.
- Insomnia: nocturnal asthma attacks can make it difficult to fall asleep at night.
The intensity of the symptoms may vary depending on the patient. Without treatment, the intensity or frequency of asthma attacks may worsen. In severe cases, asthma symptoms can also include:
- Chest pain: due to extra effort to breathe.
- Very rapid and shallow breathing.
- The difficulty of talking.
- Blue nails or lips: due to low oxygen concentration in your blood.
- Tightness of respiratory muscles like the ones in your chest or neck.
Can you develop asthma as an adult?
Actually, yes. Although the diagnosis is more common during childhood, asthma can be diagnosed in adults too. This is known as adult-onset asthma, it is more common in patients with a history of allergies or exposure to airway irritants.
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