Asthma, Diagnosis and Control
Q. What is asthma?
Disclaimer: The information provided here is intended for general health care information purposes or educational purposes only, and should not be considered complete or used as a substitute for consultation or advice from a physician and/or healthcare provider. It should not be used to diagnose and treat any diseases. Individuals are encouraged to contact their own private physician or healthcare provider regarding continuation or changes in their symptoms. If you have a serious health problem or should you have any questions about the information found on this site, please call or consult your physician or healthcare provider before taking any action.
A. Asthma is a disease of the lungs. You can have a mild or serious form of asthma. It cannot be cured, but people with asthma live healthy lives using medication to control their asthma. People with asthma may have a bad cough, wheezing, and trouble breathing. In an asthma attack, the airways in your lungs close up because the muscles tighten around the airways. Your closed airway makes thick mucus that makes it harder to breathe and may cause the airways to become swollen. About 5% of people (children and adults) in the U.S. have asthma.
Q. What can cause (trigger) an asthma attack?
A. There are many things that can cause (trigger) an asthma attack.
- Animal dander (from the skin, hair, or feathers of animals)
- Dust mites
- Pollen from trees and grass
- Mold (indoor and outdoor)
- Cigarette smoke
- Air pollution
- Infections such as colds and the flu
- Strong feelings or stress
- Changes in weather
- Strong odors from painting or cooking
- Scented products
This is not a complete list of all the things that trigger asthma. People may have trouble with one or more of these triggers. Everyone is different.
Q. Are women affected by asthma differently than men?
A. Yes. Women aged 20 to 50 years are hospitalized for asthma more than men of the same age. However, boys are hospitalized more than girls. Research shows that asthma may be linked to women’s hormonal changes. Asthma attacks may take place just before or during a woman’s period.
Q. How can I find out if I have asthma?
A. If you are coughing, wheezing, having trouble breathing, or your chest feels tight, see your doctor. The doctor will do tests to see if you have asthma.
Q. What can I do to take care of myself if I have asthma?
A. See your doctor and work out a plan to take care of your asthma. The plan should tell you:
- What medicines to take to treat early signs of asthma (medicines that can help open your airways and make the swelling go down);
- What to do if you have any change in your asthma;
- How to avoid certain things that trigger your asthma attacks; and
- When to call and go see your doctor.
- An asthma plan will help you control and take care of your asthma.
Q. What can I do to lower my chances of having an asthma attack?
A. Here are some ways you can lower your chances of having an asthma attack. Remember, everyone is different. Some people have trouble with pollen, others have trouble with tobacco smoke, and others may have trouble with animal dander.
Follow the steps that make sense for you.
- Wash your pet once a week
- Do not smoke
- Do not allow smoking in your home
- Stay indoors with the air conditioner on when the pollen count is high
- Wash your bedding, clothes, and stuffed toys once a week in hot water
- Wash your hands on a regular basis
- Get a flu shot
- Wear a scarf over your mouth and nose in the winter
- Be aware of what makes you have asthma attacks and try to stay away from those triggers
- Follow your asthma plan
Q. How does asthma affect a pregnant woman?
A. Most women with asthma have safe and normal pregnancies. It is very important for women to control their asthma when they are pregnant. This means a woman needs to stick to her asthma treatment plan that she has worked out with her doctor.
For some women, their asthma may get better during pregnancy, for others it gets worse, and for still others, their asthma stays the same.
Q. Are my asthma medications safe to take during pregnancy
A. Many asthma medications are safe for use during pregnancy. Talk with your asthma doctor and your baby doctor to make sure that your medicines are safe to take during pregnancy. It is very important to control your asthma when you are pregnant. Taking your asthma medication helps make sure that your baby gets enough oxygen.
Asthma care for seniors....special concerns
Asthma and Aging
Many older adults have asthma. Some people develop it late in life. For others, it may be a continuing problem from younger years. The cause is not known.
Asthma in older adults presents some special concerns. For example, the normal effects of aging can make asthma harder to diagnose and treat. So can other health problems that many older adults have (like emphysema or heart disease). Also, older adults are more likely than younger people to have side effects from asthma medicines. (For example, recent studies show that older adults who take high doses of inhaled steroid medicines over a long time may increase their chance of getting glaucoma.) When some asthma and nonasthma medicines are taken by the same person, the drugs can combine to produce harmful side effects. Doctors and patients must take special care to watch out for and address these concerns through a complete diagnosis and regular checkups.
If you have episodes of coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, or chest tightness, have a complete checkup to find out what the problem is. It could be asthma or another medical problem.
Several tests may be needed to tell what is causing your symptoms. These tests include spirometry (to measure how open your airways are), a chest x-ray, an electrocardiogram (to show whether you have heart disease), and a blood test. Accurate diagnosis is important because asthma is treated differently from other diseases with similar symptoms.
Controlling Your Asthma
You can help get your asthma under control and keep it under control if you do a few simple things.
Talk openly with your doctor.
Say what you want to be able to do that you can't do now because of your asthma.
Also, tell your doctor your concerns about your asthma, your medicines, and your health.
If you take medicine that you must inhale, be sure that you are doing it right. It must be timed with taking your breath in. And such common problems as arthritis or loss of strength may make it more difficult.
Your doctor should check that you are doing it right and help you solve any problems.
It's also important to talk to your doctor about all the medicines you take--for asthma and for other problems--to be sure they will not cause harmful side effects.
Be sure to mention eye drops, aspirin, and other medicines you take without a prescription. Also, tell your doctor about any symptoms you have, even if you don't think they are related to asthma. Being open with your doctor about your medicines and symptoms can help prevent problems.
Finally, be honest about any problems you may have hearing, understanding, or remembering things your doctor tells you.
Ask your doctor to speak up or repeat something until you're sure of what you need to do.
Ask your doctor for a written treatment plan. Then be sure to follow it.
A written treatment plan will tell you when to take each of your asthma medicines and how much to take.
If you have trouble reading small print, ask for your treatment plan (and other handouts) in larger type.
Watch for early symptoms and respond quickly. Most asthma attacks start slowly. You can learn to tell when one is coming if you keep track of the symptoms you have, how bad they are, and when you have them. Your doctor also may want you to use a "peak flow meter," which is a small plastic tool that you blow into that measures how well you are breathing. If you respond quickly to the first signs that your asthma is getting worse, you can prevent serious asthma attacks.
Stay away from things that make your asthma worse.
Tobacco smoke and viruses can make asthma worse. So can other things you breathe in, such as pollen. Talk to your doctor about what makes your asthma worse and what to do about those things. Ask about getting a flu shot and a vaccine to prevent pneumonia.
See your doctor at least every 6 months. You may need to go more often, especially if your asthma is not under control. Regular visits will let your doctor check your progress and, if needed, change your treatment plan. Your doctor also can check other medical problems you may have.
Bring your treatment plan and all your medicines to every checkup. Show your doctor how you take your inhaled medicines to make sure you're doing it right
Asthma in the Child Care Setting
Asthma is a chronic breathing disorder and is the most common chronic health problem among children. Children with asthma have attacks of coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath, which may be very serious. These symptoms are caused by spasms of the air passages in the lungs. The air passages swell, become inflamed, and fill with mucus, making breathing difficult.
Many asthma attacks occur when children get respiratory infections, including infections caused by common cold viruses. Attacks can also be caused by: exposure to cigarette smoke, stress, strenuous exercise, weather conditions, including cold, windy, or rainy days, allergies to animals, dust, pollen, or mold, indoor air pollutants, such as paint, cleaning materials, chemicals, or perfumes, or outdoor air pollutants, such as ozone.
As with any child with a chronic condition, the child care provider and parents should discuss specific needs of the child and whether they can be sufficiently met by the provider. Some people believe that smaller-sized child care centers or family child care home environments may be more beneficial to a child with asthma because exposure to common respiratory viruses may be reduced. However, this has not been proven to be true.
Children with asthma may be prescribed medications to relax the small air passages and/or to prevent passages from becoming inflamed. These medications may need to be administered every day or only during attacks. Asthma medication is available in several forms, including liquid, powder, and pill, or it can be breathed in from an inhaler or compressor. The child care provider should be given clear instructions on how and when to administer all medications and the name and telephone number of the child's doctor.
The child care provider should be provided with and keep on file an asthma action plan for each child with asthma. An asthma action plan lists emergency information, activities or conditions likely to trigger an asthma attack, current medications being taken, medications to be administered by the child care provider, and steps to be followed if the child has an acute asthma attack. Additional support from the child's health care providers should be available to the child care provider as needed.
Most children with asthma can lead a normal life, but may often have to restrict their activity. Some preventive measures for reducing asthma attacks include:
Avoiding allergic agents such as dust, plush carpets, feather pillows, and dog and cat dander. Installing low-pile carpets, vacuuming daily, and dusting frequently can help to reduce allergic agents. A child who is allergic to dogs or cats may need to be placed in a facility without pets.
Stopping exercise if the child begins to breathe with difficulty or starts to wheeze.
Avoiding strenuous exercise.
Avoiding cold, damp weather. A child with asthma may need to be kept inside on cold, damp days or taken inside immediately if cold air triggers an attack.
If a child with asthma has trouble breathing:
Stop the child's activity and remove whatever is causing the allergic reaction, if you know what it is.
Calm the child; give medication prescribed, if any, for an attack.
Contact the parents.
If the child does not improve very quickly, and the parents are unavailable, call the child's doctor.
If the child is unable to breathe, call 911.
Record the asthma attack in the child's file. Describe the symptoms, how the child acted during the attack, what medicine was given, and what caused the attack, if known.
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