Asthma is a condition in which the body’s airways swell and narrow and may produce excessive mucus. The muscles around your airways tighten, your breathing (bronchial) tubes narrow, and you might start to cough, wheeze, and have trouble breathing. All these conditions make it more difficult to breathe.
Asthma can be a minor nuisance or a major problem that affects daily activities. In some cases, it can lead to a life-threatening attack. While asthma is not curable, its symptoms can be controlled with the help of medications and/or medical devices such as inhalers and a peak flow meter.
An asthma evaluation and treatment plan should be set up and followed with the guidance of your health care provider.
Causes and Triggers
An overly sensitive immune system can make your airways (bronchial tubes) inflamed and swollen when exposed to specific triggers. Asthma triggers vary from person to person.
Common triggers include:
- Pollen, pet dander, mold spores, dust mites, particles of skin, insect waste
- Upper respiratory infections
- Tobacco smoke
- Inhaling cold, dry air
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Work environment chemicals such as fumes, dust, or gases
For many people, symptoms worsen with respiratory infections, such as those caused by the common cold. Exercise-induced asthma worsens with cold and dry air.
Symptoms vary by individual and can include:
- Shortness of breath
- Wheezing when exhaling (common sign among asthmatic children)
- Chest tightness or pain
- Coughing or wheezing attacks that worsen with a cold or flu
Asthma Needs an Evaluation and Treatment Plan
Asthma can be a serious condition, posing life-threatening conditions. If you experience mild to moderate symptoms, it is important to make an appointment with a healthcare provider to be evaluated. If you are diagnosed with asthma, a treatment plan will be put in place that will likely involve an inhaler, medications, and medical guidance instructions.
Worsening Asthma That Needs Attention
Signs that your asthma may be worsening and need attention from your provider include more frequent symptoms, greater use of a quick-relief inhaler, and an increase in the difficulty of breathing as indicated by a peak flow meter (a device that measures how well your lungs are working).
When your symptoms flare up, follow your written plan’s instructions for using your quick-acting (rescue) inhaler. Check in with your primary care provider to see if you need to make any changes. Asthma can change over time, so you will need periodic adjustments to your treatment plan to keep your daily symptoms under control. If your asthma is not well-controlled, you’re more likely to have an attack, and ongoing lung inflammation will result in your asthma flaring again at any time.
An asthma attack is the sudden onset of symptoms, including:
- Severe shortness of breath, chest pain or tightness, coughing or wheezing
- Low peak expiratory flow (PEF) readings on a peak flow meter
- Symptoms that do not respond to the use of a quick-acting (rescue) inhaler
Signs and symptoms of an attack vary from one person to the next. Work with your provider to better understand your particular signs and what to do when an attack occurs.
Your provider will ensure you know how to respond to different levels of reactions. For example, if you have an attack and your symptoms do not improve, or even get worse, after you have taken medication, have used an inhaler, and have taken other usual measures, you may be in a life-threatening situation. You need emergency treatment in an emergency room. Your provider can help you learn to recognize an asthma emergency.
When to Seek Emergency Medical Treatment
Seek medical attention right away if you have signs or symptoms of a severe asthma attack, which include:
- Severe breathlessness or wheezing, especially at night or in the early morning
- The inability to speak more than short phrases due to shortness of breath
- Having to strain your chest muscles to breathe
- Low peak flow readings when you use a peak flow meter
- No improvement after using a quick-acting (rescue) inhaler
Risk Factors for a Serious Asthma Attack
Anyone who has asthma is at risk of a serious attack, but you might have increased risk if:
- You had a severe attack in the past
- You have previously been admitted to the emergency room for asthma
- You use more than two quick-acting (rescue) inhalers a month
- Your attacks tend to strike before you notice symptoms have worsened
- You have other chronic health conditions, such as sinusitis or nasal polyps, or cardiovascular or chronic lung disease
When to See Your Provider for an Acute, but Non-life Threatening, Asthma Concern
Call your provider if you are following your action plan but are experiencing worrisome symptoms, having frequent or bothersome symptoms, or having low peak flow readings despite your best efforts. These are signs your asthma is not well controlled, and you probably need to change your treatment promptly.
If your symptoms flare up when you have a cold or the flu, take steps to prevent an attack by watching your lung function and symptoms and adjusting your treatment as instructed by your provider. Be sure to reduce exposure to your allergy triggers, and wear a face mask when exercising in cold weather.
At Catawba Valley Health care, we will provide you with the individualized and careful attention you deserve to know how to address both your chronic and acute asthma issues. We will help you manage your condition to the best of your ability for optimal health.
Call our Primary Care Clinic at Catawba Valley Healthcare with any questions or worrisome symptoms at (828) 695-5900