If you don’t have experience with asthma, there's a good chance you've seen it characterized on TV: someone, usually a young child, is suddenly unable to breathe well. They start taking in short, panicked gasps and usually reach for an inhaler to get relief, which quickly resolves the asthma attack.
While asthma is the leading chronic disease in children External Site and, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is more common in children than in adults, anyone can suffer from it for a number of reasons. In fact, more Americans than ever before have asthma — and it’s one of the most common and costly diseases External Site in the U.S.
Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic External Site, where a hallmark symptom of the virus is shortness of breath, it’s important to be aware of how common asthma is and how it affects your body, what triggers it, how it’s diagnosed, and how you can treat it.
What is asthma?
Asthma is a lung condition that is characterized by variable and recurring symptoms. People with asthma may experience airflow obstruction, bronchial hyperresponsiveness (airway narrowing), and underlying inflammation.
This may significantly affects your ability to breathe, and can trigger symptoms External Site such as coughing, chest tightness, wheezing and shortness of breath when you are exposed to environmental allergens and irritants External Site such as pollen, pollution, airborne chemicals and tobacco smoke.
Doctors think genetics and other factors may play a role in developing asthma, too. According to the Mayo Clinic External Site, you’re more likely to get asthma if:
- You have another allergic condition
- You have a family history of allergies, asthma or eczema
- You are a smoker or are regularly exposed to secondhand smoke
- You are overweight
Different types of asthma
There are several different types of asthma, since a variety of triggers can cause it. A few of the most common types include:
- Allergic asthma External Site. If you suffer from allergies, you may be more susceptible to allergic asthma, which is triggered by common allergens like dust, pollen, pet dander, mold spores and other airborne substances.
- Occupational asthma External Site. This type of asthma is triggered by airborne irritants specific to your work environment, such as chemical fumes, exhaust, gases or dust particles. You’ll typically only experience symptoms when you are in that environment and exposed to those triggers.
- Exercise-induced asthma External Site. Also known as exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB), this type of asthma can affect people who don’t experience asthma in other situations, and usually only lasts for the duration of your exercise. EIB triggers are typically situational for specific sports, like chlorine while swimming, air pollution while running or cycling, the room temperature during hot yoga, and cold, dry air while skiing, ice skating, or playing hockey.
What are the signs and symptoms of asthma?
Asthma symptoms can vary from person to person, and they can even change for someone over time. Some of the easily recognizable symptoms External Site include:
- Shortness of breath
- Pain or tightness in your chest
- A whistling or wheezing sound when breathing out
- Coughing or wheezing attacks that are worse when you have a cold
In addition, signs of asthma in children External Site may include:
- Frequent coughing spells
- Less energy while playing
- Taking lots of pauses to catch their breath
- Rapid or shallow breathing
- Weakness or tiredness
- Tightened neck and chest muscles
Doctors typically classify asthma symptoms External Site into four different levels of severity:
- Mild intermittent — mild symptoms less than twice a week, nighttime symptoms less than twice a month
- Mild persistent — mild symptoms for more than a few days each week and nighttime symptoms a few times per month, which might affect some activities
- Moderate persistent — moderate symptoms for more than a few days each week and nighttime symptoms a few times per month, which might affect some activities
- Severe persistent — frequent, ongoing symptoms occurring both day and night and force you to limit activities
How do you treat asthma?
Though you cannot cure asthma, the right treatment and lifestyle changes can easily help you keep symptoms under control. There are two main types of medication for asthma: quick-relief medications like inhalers, which allow you to breathe easier when experiencing an asthma attack, and long-term control medications, which are taken daily to help reduce inflammation or prevent your airways from closing.
According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology External Site, quick-relief inhalers are only meant to be used once or twice a week, and may be recommended for use when you’re sick or before you start to exercise. If you find yourself using or relying on your inhaler more often, it’s important to talk to your personal doctor about changing your treatment plan.
Other steps you can take to better manage your asthma include:
- Keeping vaccines up to date, as the flu or pneumonia can trigger asthma flare-ups.
- Avoid asthma triggers. Once you identify what triggers your asthma, take steps to avoid those triggers whenever possible.
- Monitor your breathing. You can use an at-home peak flow meter to measure your lung’s peak airflow, which can tell you if your lung function is silently decreasing and putting you at risk for a more severe attack.
The bottom line
While most think asthma is an obvious disease — coughing and gasping for air during an attack — people who have been diagnosed with asthma may not show any symptoms for long periods of time. And, if you have asthma and are only treating it during attacks or flare-ups with a short-term medication, you may not be effectively controlling the disease External Site. Though asthma is an incurable, chronic condition, you can work with your doctor to create a detailed plan that helps you live a normal life and prevent asthma attacks.
If you are concerned you may have asthma, your doctor or an allergist can diagnose it with a series of tests that measure and evaluate your lung function. You can make an appointment with your personal doctor or find an allergist in your network with myWellmark® Secure Site.