Asthma is a complex condition, the symptoms of which include airway obstruction, inflammation, and hyperirritability. Asthmatics may experience anything from mild chest tightness to severe attacks.
Although asthma affects nearly 25 million people in the United States1, most asthma patients, with the help of their doctors, can manage the symptoms. Here are some facts about asthma to help sufferers understand this condition.
First, the airways of the lungs or bronchial tubes narrow. This symptom is called “airway obstruction” since the air can no longer flow smoothly through this elaborate system of branching tubes. In asthma, because these tubes can dilate or open, this obstruction is reversible, distinguishing asthma from other bronchial illnesses such as bronchitis and emphysema.
The narrowing of the bronchial tubes occurs due to a tightening or constriction of the muscle in the bronchial wall. It’s like a muscle spasm that results in the narrowing of the bronchial tubes, similar to any muscle cramp. Narrowed or “obstructed” airways produce one of the typical symptoms of asthma…the wheeze. As asthmatics exhale air, its movement through the airways is turbulent, producing the familiar and disturbing sound.
The second element that characterizes asthma is the presence of inflammation that results in a red, swollen appearance inside of the bronchial tubes. Doctors can examine the inflammation in the lining (the mucosa) of the bronchial tubes, by inserting a lighted scope, called a bronchoscope, into them. This characteristic of asthma has become the focus of asthma research and therapy much more in recent years.
The third characteristic of asthma is bronchial tube hyperirritability, meaning airways are extremely sensitive and tend to “overreact” and narrow. Essentially, airways become “twitchy.” This irritability causes sudden and severe attacks that patients may experience when exposed to substances such as pollen, animal dander, dust, and fumes. Such sensitivity forms the basis for bronchial irritation or challenge testing that physicians use to diagnose asthma in patients.
An asthma diagnosis starts with that doctor assessing the patient’s family history of asthma and allergies. He or she will also want to explore the patient’s medical history to learn about symptoms, when they occur and what appears to trigger them. The doctor then does a physical exam to discover signs of asthma such as difficulty breathing and swollen nasal passages.
Finally, the doctor will perform diagnostic tests. The lung function test measures whether breathing is impaired. If it is, then medicine will likely be prescribed. If breathing improves with medication, then the doctor will probably diagnose the patient with asthma. The doctor may also recommend or perform tests for allergies and airway sensitivity. To eliminate other diseases from consideration or a foreign object that’s obstructing the lungs, an electrocardiogram or chest x-ray may be performed. Also, the doctor may want to conduct tests to rule out specific health issues such as sleep apnea, reflux disease or vocal cord dysfunction.
There is no cure for asthma, but patients can control it with a variety of medications. If left unchecked, asthma can be life-threatening. Long-term management is necessary. Sometimes, childhood asthma simply goes away with time. For others, it’s a lifelong condition. And there are those who develop adult-onset asthma, not exhibiting any symptoms until they reach their 30’s and beyond.
Knowing the facts about asthma can help patients identify the illness and cope with their symptoms. Consult a physician to determine a diagnosis and help chart the best course for you.