Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disease of the airways affecting 14 to 15 million people in the United States. Asthma causes wheezing, cough, and difficulty breathing. Symptoms generally come and go and are at least partially reversible. During an episode of asthma, the airways become narrow because the muscles around them tighten (bronchospasm). The lining of the airways may become swollen and excess mucus is produced which can clog the air passage. Breathing gets harder as air is forced through narrower airways and the airflow may make a wheezing or whistling sound. Asthma episodes may be mild or severe. Most often they are mild and the airways will open in a few minutes to hours. Infrequently, asthma episodes can be severe or prolonged and need emergency medical treatment.
It is essential to make the diagnosis of asthma to rule out other medical problems that sometimes mimic asthma. In addition to a careful history and physical exam, pulmonary function testing is performed to measure the airflow in the lungs and the reversibility of the obstruction after the inhalation of a bronchodilator medication.
Although asthma cannot be cured there are many ways to control and prevent asthma attacks, allowing for a comfortable life with minimal interference in daily activities. Furthermore, many children have lessening symptoms as they grow older.
Determining an individual’s asthma triggers is an important step in controlling the episodes. Some of the more common triggers to asthma are allergies to pollen, animals, dust, dust mites and mold; respiratory infections; smoke or air pollution; chemical fumes and exercise.
Asthma triggered by allergic factors can be prevented by avoidance of allergens. Allergy injections or immunotherapy reduce reactivity to the offending allergen. Whether or not asthma is triggered by allergies, medication will help prevent or reduce the symptoms. No one drug is best for every kind of asthma or every person. You and your doctor will work together to find the drug or combination of drugs that will work best for you.