Asthma: Symptoms, Types and Next Steps

By Ashley Henshaw. Medically reviewed by Tom Iarocci, MD. May 7th 2016

Asthma is one of the most common diseases in the United States today, and its narrowing of the breathing airways is marked by wheezing, coughing, chest tightness and difficulty breathing.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 1 in 12 people have this chronic lung disease, and the numbers are growing. About half of all patients tend to have at least one asthma attack over the course of a year, and many of those can be prevented. Although asthma can be dangerous if left unchecked, treatment through a health care provider is usually successful, and patient involvement in the management of asthma is key.

Types of asthma

The most common type of asthma is allergy-induced asthma, but there are several additional types:

  • Allergy-induced asthma: Certain allergens, such as pet dander, pollen or dust, have been known to trigger asthmatic symptoms.
  • Exercise-induced asthma: People who suffer from exercise-induced asthma only experience asthmatic symptoms while exercising. The symptoms are often worse when the air is cold and dry.
  • Occupational asthma: Some people develop asthmatic symptoms due to the conditions at their place of employment. This can be caused by jobs involving certain allergens or chemicals that are present in the workplace. These allergens or chemicals may be specific to the job, such as enzymes used to make washing powder detergents, or irritants associated with the petroleum or chemical industry.

In a small but significant group of people with asthma, aspirin can exacerbate asthma and other respiratory symptoms, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Less than 5 percent of asthma sufferers have aspirin-sensitive asthma.

Symptoms of asthma

The severity of symptoms can vary depending on factors such as triggers, genetics, and the type of asthma, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. The most common symptoms include:

  • Wheezing (whistling sounds during breathing)
  • Coughing, especially at night and in the morning
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Shortness of breath
  • Trouble sleeping  

Depending on a person’s individual condition, these symptoms could last anywhere from a few minutes to several days. Asthma is a common cause of unexplained coughing, but so is gastroesophageal reflux and a variety of other conditions, so it’s important to work with a health care provider to establish a diagnosis.

Causes and risk factors

Both environmental and genetic factors have been shown to play a role in the onset of asthma. In addition, there are specific triggers that may cause asthma attacks to occur, such as physical activity, allergens, air pollutants, cold air, high stress levels or respiratory infections. Even a woman’s menstrual cycle can be a trigger for this condition.

Since many triggers are environmental, your exposure to those elements could be a risk factor for asthma. Additionally, having an immediate blood relative with asthma could also increase your risk for developing this breathing condition. Other common risk factors include being a smoker or being around second-hand smoke before and/or after birth, being overweight, having allergies, suffering frequent respiratory infections in childhood and having a low birth weight.

Can you prevent asthma?

The development of asthma is often difficult to prevent since it can be partially due to genetics. However, you can try to sidestep the most common, debilitating symptoms by avoiding environmental factors known to trigger the condition.

Here are a few tips for preventing asthma flare-ups:

  • Asthma If your asthma is allergy-induced, cover your bedding with allergy-proof casing. It also helps to remove carpeting in your home, vacuum regularly and use air purifiers. You might also consider allergy testing and allergy shots.
  • Eliminate smoke from your home, and avoid any places that have a lot of smoke or air pollutants.
  • Learn to identify your asthma attacks early on. Pay close attention to how your body reacts during an asthma attack. Keep your rescue inhaler handy. Responding to an asthma attack sooner will ease your symptoms faster and often requires the use of less medication.
  • Track your use of your medication and inhalers. If your medication is not working effectively or you have to use your rescue inhaler more and more, your asthma may be worsening. See a doctor to change to a more effective treatment plan.

Two basic categories of asthma medication are:

  • Long-Term Controller Medications: There are several types of long-term controller medications and some involve an inhaler while others are tablets that are taken orally. In either case, long-term controllers are taken daily and are intended to control asthma by reducing frequency of symptoms over a longer period of time.
  • Quick-Relief Medications: There are also a few options for people to deal with sudden or unexpected asthma attacks. They act quickly to relieve symptoms and help breathing return to normal. These can be taken via an inhaler, a pill or an injection.

Take the next steps

There are several components in a comprehensive approach to asthma, and medication is just one of them. Other components include patient education, controlling triggers, monitoring symptoms, and categorizing severity to arrive at a balance between risks and benefits.

The approach to managing asthma is highly individual, depending on factors such as age, severity of symptoms, and the presence or absence of other conditions in addition to the asthma. Treatment for a new episode (or an acute exacerbation of asthma) is distinct from long-term treatment.

If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms of asthma, see a doctor for a diagnosis and to explore potential treatment options. It’s important to treat asthma early on to prevent lung damage, especially in children.

Finally, any severe asthma attack that isn’t alleviated by the use of quick-relief medications requires immediate medical attention. In very serious cases, asthma attacks like these could result in permanent damage or even death.

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