Millions of people in the United States have asthma, and each year, the prevalence continues to rise. Understanding and managing asthma are key to maintaining good quality of life and reducing flare-ups, hospitalizations and emergency department visits. The following are some frequently asked questions about asthma.
Q: What is asthma?
A: Asthma is a chronic swelling of the airways in the lungs. It is treatable with medications, but not curable. People cannot “outgrow” asthma, but it is possible for the symptoms to eventually stop.
Q: What are common signs/symptoms?
A: They include chest tightness, wheezing, shortness of breath and cough. Not everybody experiences all of these signs and symptoms. Sometimes only one is present. For example, it is common, especially in children, for a cough to be the only sign of asthma.
Q: What causes asthma symptoms?
A: Asthma symptoms occur after exposure to certain triggers, which cause the airways to become very swollen and produce extra mucus. The airways also become overly sensitive and responsive, causing the muscle surrounding them to spasm. This results in a very narrow space for air to move in and out, making breathing difficult.
Q: What are common triggers?
A: Triggers can be extrinsic (allergy related) or intrinsic (nonallergy related). Common extrinsic triggers are dust mites, pollens, animal dander and molds. Common intrinsic triggers are cold and dry air, anxiety, exercise, viruses and bacteria, chemicals and pollutants, and tobacco smoke. Not everybody with asthma is sensitive to the same triggers.
Q: How is asthma treated?
A: Several different medications can be used to treat asthma. Most are inhaled, and some can be taken orally. They are divided into two categories: preventative (controller) and rescue (reliever).
Rescue medications work very quickly and should be used only as needed for immediate relief of symptoms. Everybody with asthma should have a rescue medication.
Preventative medications are prescribed for persistent forms of asthma. They help get asthma under control and reduce the frequency and severity of symptoms. In order for these medications to work right, they must be taken daily as prescribed, even if no symptoms are present.
Q: What does asthma “control” mean?
A: In general, asthma control can be determined by following the “rule of twos.” Two or less daytime symptoms per week, two or less nighttime symptoms per month, rescue inhaler use two times per week or less, and little to no activity limitations.
Q: How can asthma flare-ups be prevented?
A: The best way to prevent flare-ups is to take your asthma medications, as prescribed and avoid things that you know make your asthma worse. Work with your health care providers to identify these triggers, learn strategies to avoid them, and create and follow a written asthma management plan.
Jackson is a registered respiratory therapist and certified asthma educator at Sutter Gould Medical Foundation.