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:
- Dust mites
- Certain medicines (aspirin and other NSAIDS)
- Changes in weather
- Chemicals in the air or in food
- Respiratory infections, such as the common cold
- Strong emotions such as stress
- Tobacco smoke
Many people with asthma have a personal or family history of allergies, such as hay fever (allergic rhinitis), or eczema.
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.
- Cough with or without mucus
- Pulling in of the skin between the ribs when breathing (intercostal retractions)
- Shortness of breath that gets worse with exercise or activity
Emergency symptoms that need prompt medical help:
- Bluish color to the lips and face
- Decreased level of alertness, such as severe drowsiness or confusion, during an asthma attack
- Extreme difficulty breathing
- Rapid pulse
- Severe anxiety due to shortness of breath
Other symptoms that may occur:
- Abnormal breathing pattern -- breathing out takes more than twice as long as breathing in
- Breathing temporarily stops
- Chest pain
- Tightness in the chest
The doctor or nurse will use a stethoscope to listen to the lungs. Wheezing or other asthma-related sounds may be heard.
Tests that may be ordered include:
- Allergy testing - skin or a blood test to see if a person with asthma is allergic to certain substances
- Arterial blood gas (usually only done with patients who are having a severe asthma attack)
- Chest x-ray
- Lung function tests, including peak flow measurements
MedStar Health doctors work with patients as a team to manage asthma. Patients should follow their instructions on taking medicines, eliminating asthma triggers, and monitoring symptoms.
There are two kinds of medicines for treating asthma:
- Control medicines to help prevent attacks
- Quick-relief (rescue) medicines for use during attacks