Have you ever had trouble breathing combined with other symptoms such as increased heart rate and a persistent cough? You may be suffering from asthma, a condition that causes inflammation of the lungs, making it difficult to breathe. Asthma can manifest as mild symptoms or it can interfere with your ability to carry on with everyday activities. In extreme cases, asthma can be life threatening.
So What Is Asthma?
Asthma is a chronic condition that affects people of all ages. It often begins in childhood and continues into adulthood. More than 25 million people in the United States have been diagnosed with asthma.
Asthma is a reaction in the lungs that leads to inflammation and narrowing of the bronchial tubes which are the passages that allow air flow through the lungs. When the airways react, the muscles around them tighten. The airways then become inflamed, narrow, and swell. They also produce extra mucus and cause spasms in the bronchi of the lungs, restricting the air flow and making it difficult to breathe. If left untreated, the swelling can worsen, restricting the airways even further.
Treating asthma at the onset of symptoms is necessary to prevent a complete blockage of the airway which could lead to death. If the symptoms are left untreated and continue to worsen, it is important to seek emergency care.
Currently, there is no cure for asthma. Even when you are asymptomatic, the disease is still present and can be triggered at any time. It is important to understand and treat the symptoms so you can live a normal, active life. There are many treatments available including medical options and home remedies.
What Are The Causes Of Asthma
Researchers do not know what exactly causes asthma. Some hypothesize that it is caused by an interaction of genetic and environmental factors. Others believe in the “hygiene hypothesis” which attributes asthma to a change in our immune systems due to increased hygiene and sanitation in modern society.
Many young children no longer have the same types of environmental exposures and infections as children did in the past. This affects the way that young children’s immune systems develop during very early childhood, and it may increase their risk for allergies and asthma.
Asthma symptoms typically result from an allergic reaction or another form of hypersensitivity to certain inhaled irritants such as smoke or perfumes. These reactions cause swelling in the airways and make them more sensitive to irritants, causing the symptoms to continue and progress.
Some factors may be more likely to cause asthma in some people than in others. Asthma triggers are different from person to person and can include:
- Outdoor allergens including pollens from grass, trees, flowers and weeds
- Indoor allergens like dust mites, mold spores, pet dander, and cockroach particles
- Air pollutants and irritants such as smoke, chemical fumes, and strong orders
- Respiratory infections, the common cold, flu or other illness
- Physical activity (this is known as exercise-induced asthma)
- Weather conditions, such as cold air or extremely dry, wet or windy weather
- Medicines such as aspirin or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and nonselective beta-blockers
- Sulfites in foods and drinks
Symptoms Of Asthma
The chain reaction of swelling and narrowing of the airways, when exposed to an asthma trigger, can result in a variety of symptoms. Symptoms can happen each time the airways are inflamed. Sometimes asthma symptoms are mild and go away on their own or after minimal treatment with asthma medication.
Other times, symptoms continue to get worse. It is important to know the symptoms so they can be treated before they become life threatening.
Wheezing is one of the most common symptoms present during an asthma attack. Wheezing is identified by a whistling or hissing noise as you exhale. In severe cases, it may also be heard during inhalation as well. Wheezing is caused by an obstruction in the small airways of the respiratory tract. This is a common symptom of exercise-induced asthma and typically starts during or after exercise.
A cough lasting more than six to eight weeks is another common asthma symptom. This cough can be dry and without mucus or it can be a productive cough with clear, sticky sputum. Many other conditions can cause a cough, including bronchitis, pneumonia and heart disease, so it is best to consult with a doctor regarding a long-term, persistent cough.
Shortness of breath can be one of the scariest asthma symptoms because it creates a sensation of suffocation. During an asthma attack, the shortness of breath can be severe enough to cause extreme panic, accompanied by increased heart rate, sweating, and fatigue due to the effort of trying to get enough air into the lungs. In this situation, it is best to sit up and lean forward to help open the lungs and bring in more air.
Once breathing becomes a struggle, it often leads to the additional symptom of difficulty speaking. With the reduced airflow into the lungs, the oxygen supply to your blood and organs is significantly reduced causing confusion, difficulty concentrating, lethargy, and a blue tint to the skin. When the symptoms are this severe, immediate emergency treatment is needed.
Some people have asthma symptoms that are more prevalent at night causing difficulty sleeping; this is known as nocturnal asthma. During sleep, the airways naturally become more narrow which may cause increased airflow resistance and trigger nighttime coughing. Increased drainage from your sinuses happens while you sleep and can also trigger asthma in already sensitive airways.
For a true asthma diagnosis, you will need to consult a medical professional. A doctor can review your medical and family histories, perform a physical exam, and order tests to eliminate other illnesses. Once you are diagnosed with asthma it is important to understand the severity of your triggers and symptoms. Asthma ranges from intermittent, mild, moderate, or severe. The level of severity will determine the appropriate treatment.
If you are diagnosed with severe asthma, you may be referred to an asthma specialist. A specialist will have a wider array of tests to pinpoint your triggers. He may also be able to prescribe different kinds of medications or higher doses of medicine to control your asthma.
It is important to know your symptoms, as well as when and how often they happen. For example, perhaps symptoms are only present during certain times of the year or in certain places, or maybe they are worse at night. This information can help your doctor identify the cause of your asthma.
As part of your diagnosis, your doctor may perform a physical exam, listen to your breathing, and look for noticeable signs of asthma or allergies. These signs include wheezing, a runny nose or swollen nasal passages, and allergic skin rashes.
Additionally, your doctor may perform diagnostic tests including a lung function test, allergy tests, X-rays, or an EKG. The lung test is called spirometry and checks how your lungs are working by measuring the speed at which you breathe and the amount of air you inhale and exhale. Allergy tests will help your doctor identify allergens that may be triggering your episodes. An X-ray or EKG helps to rule out other possibilities that might be causing your breathing problems.
Asthma In Children
Children with asthma often display their first symptoms before 5 years of age, but it is still difficult to make a diagnosis because asthma symptoms are similar to other childhood conditions such as respiratory infections, colds, and the flu.
A child who has frequent bouts of wheezing is likely to have asthma if:
- One or both parents have asthma
- There are topical signs of allergies such as skin rashes
- Pollens or other airborne allergens cause allergic reactions
Medical Treatment For Asthma
If your asthma is severe and you have seen a doctor, you may need to take prescription medication to keep your symptom under control. The right medications for you depend on a number of things—your age, symptoms, and asthma triggers.
Work with your doctor to create an asthma action plan that outlines all recommendations to manage your symptoms in writing. These recommendations may include medication as well as tracking your symptoms to monitor how well your treatment is controlling your asthma.
Preventive, long-term control medications reduce the inflammation in your airways that leads to symptoms. These are taken daily and reduce the chances of an asthma attack occurring. Typically, these medications include inhaled corticosteroids and anti-inflammatory drugs.
Bronchodilators are usually administered by an inhaler, and they quickly open swollen airways that are constricting breathing. These medications are used as needed for rapid, short-term symptom relief during an asthma attack.
If recommended by your doctor, they can be used before exercise to prevent an exercise-induced asthma attack. These inhalers, also known as nebulizers, convert asthma medications into an inhalable mist. If you have an asthma flare-up, a quick-relief inhaler can provide immediate relief.
If you are on long-term control medications, you should not have a need for a nebulizer, but it is good practice to have on one hand in case of an emergency. When using an inhaler, you should keep a record of when and how many puffs you use each week. If you use your quick-relief inhaler more often than recommended, you may need to consult your doctor and change your asthma management plan.
In some cases, allergy medications are necessary if your asthma is triggered or worsened by allergies. Over-the-counter antihistamines or prescription allergy medications can help. In extreme cases, you may need allergy shots. Over time, allergy shots gradually reduce your immune system reaction to specific allergens.
Shots are required once a week for the first two to three months, then can be reduced once an immunity begins to build up. It is typical to continue with allergy shots for 3 to 5 years.
A final resort for medical asthma treatment is called bronchial thermoplasty. This treatment is used for severe asthma that doesn’t improve with long-term control medication or inhalers.
Bronchial thermoplasty heats the insides of the airways in the lungs with an electrode, reducing the smooth muscle inside the airways. This limits the ability of the airways to tighten, making breathing easier and possibly reducing asthma attacks. This involves 3 treatments, 3 weeks apart, one for each lower lobe of the lung and another for both upper lobes. Typical results of bronchial thermoplasty showed a reduction in asthma attacks among adults for at least five years.
It is important to seek medical treatment for severe asthma, but if your symptoms are intermittent, mild, or moderate, you may be able to find relief from home remedies.
One of the simplest things you can do is learn relaxation and breathing techniques. Quite often an asthma attack is accompanied by panic which worsens the situation. Being able to relax and breathe calmly during an attack may help you to avoid feelings of panic.
One breathing technique that can be helpful is to sit on a chair, supporting your arms on the back of the chair, then breathe in and out slowly and calmly through slightly closed lips. This can also be done from a standing position with your arms leaning on a table.
Certain changes to your home environment can reduce allergens that may be triggering your asthma. It is important to keep your home clean and have proper air circulation. Make sure that air conditioning and heating filters are changed regularly. You may want to purchase special allergen-reducing filters.
If you keep pets in the house, it is important to vacuum regularly to eliminate the dander they produce. It is best to avoid strong scents in the home including air fresheners and perfumes.
For asthma triggered by minor allergies, a Neti pot can be helpful to reduce and relieve swelling in the nasal passages. A Neti pot is a specially designed container with a narrow spout that is filled with salt water that is poured through your nose. The mucus and other allergens trapped in your nose come out with the saline, helping to clear your passages.
For asthma that’s allergic in nature, regular use of a Neti pot to rinse your sinuses can prevent related respiratory symptoms that could trigger an attack.
Another option for self-treatment of asthma includes supplements. Some of the supplements recommended are:
- Vitamin D—Slows diminishing lung function and boosts the immune system. Over time, it may also reduce narrowing of the respiratory passages
- Vitamins C—Increases immunity and acts as an antioxidant, reducing free radical damage and inflammation
- B vitamins—Vitamin B3 and vitamin B12 can lower antihistamine levels and reduce wheezing
- Zinc—Helps the body cope with stress, which has been tied to worsened asthma symptoms
- Magnesium—May reduce asthma symptom severity, including pain, anxiety and stress.
Diet is also an important consideration when managing asthma. Processed and refined foods are thought to contribute to asthma because of their lack of fiber which reduces healthy probiotic bacteria. Without these bacteria, the stomach is unable to digest food properly which leads to a lack of balanced nutrients, making the body less able to neutralize toxins. This can cause inflammation which worsens the symptoms of an asthma attack.
It is best to remove processed foods from your diet and replace them with fresh whole foods including fruits and vegetables.
A healthy diet supplies asthma sufferers with antioxidants and nutrients to combat environmental toxins and may even reduce the need to take supplements. It can help you to control inflammatory responses and reduce dietary triggers.
How to Get Rid of Asthma:
In addition to breathing techniques, reducing airborne allergens, and a healthy diet.
Most people with asthma are able to control their condition if they work together with a healthcare provider and carefully follow their treatment regimen. If you believe you have asthma but take no action, you may experience worsening symptoms and a deterioration in your ability to function normally. For mild asthma symptoms, you may be able to successfully treat yourself with an assortment of home remedies.
The causes of asthma are not fully understood. Sometimes, people naturally outgrow their symptoms. Other times, regular treatment with proper medication may make the disease seem to be cured. However, it is vital to remember that once you have been diagnosed with asthma, it can always recur.
It is important to monitor your symptoms and triggers and to always have an inhaler on hand for emergencies.