Asthma is a chronic condition that people can manage well with good support and treatment. However, getting the right diagnosis and treatment and proactively managing the condition is essential.
This article looks at several types of asthma and what causes them, the tests and checks a doctor can do to identify asthma, and the outlook for people living with asthma.
Asthma is a chronic condition that causes inflammation and narrowing of the airways, causing shortness of breath, coughing, chest tightness, and wheezing. Around 26.5 million people are living with asthma in the United States.
There are many different types of asthma, and doctors further classify them into four levels of severity:
- mild persistent
- moderate persistent
- severe persistent
Various triggers can cause asthma symptoms to develop. It is important to see a doctor or asthma specialist to determine the triggers and manage the condition more effectively.
The American Lung Association (ALA) identifies seven types of asthma:
- Allergic asthma: Allergens, such as pet dander, pollen, and dust mites, can trigger allergic asthma.
- Aspirin-induced asthma: Taking aspirin or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, can cause this type of asthma.
- Cough-variant asthma: Seasonal changes in the weather, exercise, respiratory infections, medication, allergens, or irritants may cause an asthma cough. However, experts do not fully understand the causes.
- Exercise-induced asthma: This occurs after breathing in cold, dry air through the mouth during exercise and exposure to more pollutants, allergens, and irritants during physical activity.
- Nighttime asthma: This may have links to hormonal changes that occur at night and affect the airways, but experts are unsure of the exact causes.
- Steroid-resistant asthma: This may have links to bacterial and viral respiratory infections and obesity.
- Occupational asthma: Triggers include exposure to allergens, irritants, and other chemicals in the workplace.
Allergic asthma is the most common form of asthma, affecting 6 in 10 people living with asthma in the U.S.
People who think they may have asthma should make an appointment to see their doctor. A doctor will take a full medical history and ask about symptoms and triggers, current medications, occupation, and lifestyle. The doctor will want to know if there is any history of asthma or other allergic conditions, such as eczema. Both asthma and eczema can be hereditary.
A doctor may also carry out the following tests if they think a person might have asthma:
A physical examination
The doctor will listen to the lungs to check for signs of wheezing or whistling. They will also look at the nose and throat to check if an allergy has caused any swelling. They will examine the skin to check for any signs of eczema because these two conditions are closely related.
Tests and checks
The doctor or specialist may order an X-ray of the lungs and sinuses. They may also order a series of other tests to check lung function. These may include one or more of the following:
- FeNo test: This involves breathing into a machine to measure the amount of nitric oxide in the breath. High levels of nitric oxide indicate inflammation in the lungs.
- Spirometry: Breathing into a small machine called a spirometer tells the doctor how well the lungs are working.
- Peak airflow test: This device measures how well the lungs exhale air and can check for narrowing of the airways.
- Skin tests and blood tests: These help rule out certain allergies or other conditions and help a doctor or specialist prescribe treatment to get asthma under control.
Asthma symptoms can vary from mild to moderate to severe. They can also change depending on several factors, such as the weather, exposure to irritants, viral infections, or age. However, the most common symptoms of asthma include:
- chest tightness
- symptoms that get worse at night or affect sleep
For most people with asthma, symptoms will come and go over their lifetime. However, most people can enjoy physically active and healthy lives with the condition. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) identifies three key factors to living a full life with asthma:
- seeing a doctor or specialist when required
- having a treatment plan
- sticking to the treatment plan
The AAFA says that people who proactively manage their asthma can reduce asthma attacks, illness, and ER visits by following their doctor or specialist’s advice. Knowing what triggers can worsen symptoms and reducing those triggers can help to control asthma.
People with asthma must protect themselves against viruses that can cause serious complications, such as influenza and pneumonia. People with asthma should get the flu shot every year and ask their doctor if they should have the pneumonia vaccine.
The American College of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology (ACAAI) has a useful questionnaire to download and fill out before an appointment with a doctor or specialist. It helps people with asthma understand how the condition may affect their quality of life.
According to the AAFA, 11 people die every day in the U.S. from asthma attacks, but many of these deaths are avoidable with the right treatment.
The ALA advises that people with asthma should see their doctor or healthcare professional at least once a year and more often if they are experiencing symptoms. Their advice is to call a doctor right away if a person is:
- feeling dizzy, faint, or weak
- having trouble with routine activities
- coughing persistently
- wheezing when they breathe in and out
- wheezing after taking medication
People should seek emergency medical care at the emergency room or call 911 if:
- their lips or nails are turning blue (cyanosis)
- their nostrils flare when they breathe in
- the skin between their ribs or at the base of their throat stretches with each breath.
- they are taking 30 or more breaths each minute
- they have difficulty talking or walking at ther usual pace
Asthma is a chronic condition that requires careful and proactive management.
There are several types of asthma, and symptoms may be mild, moderate, or severe. People who notice asthma symptoms, such as coughing, wheezing, or shortness of breath, should see a doctor or specialist.
A doctor can perform a physical examination and other tests to look for asthma signs and rule out other conditions.
It is possible to live a full and active life with asthma, provided people follow their doctor’s advice and watch out for signs of a medical emergency.