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Understanding Common Breathing Disorders: Asthma

Thursday 4 June 2020
6 minute(s) read

Table of Contents

I. How Common is Asthma?

II. Symptoms

III. Causes and Risk Factors

IV. Am I Experiencing an Asthma Attack?

V. Diagnosing Asthma

VI. Treatment

a. Long-term Asthma Control Medications

b. Rescue Medications

How Common is Asthma?

Asthma is one of the most common lung diseases in the United States. Depending on the severity, asthma can lead to a disruption of everyday life and an inability to participate in physical activity. In the U.S. alone, there are 18 million adults with asthma and 6.2 million children affected by this breathing disorder. [1] 

Asthma is a condition in which the airways narrow, swell, and produce extra mucus. This can make breathing difficult and lead to symptoms of coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath. This is a chronic disease and cannot be cured. Life-threatening asthma attacks can occur if your asthma is not well treated with medications like Ventolin. Read on to learn more about symptoms and treatments for asthma. [2]


The symptoms of asthma can vary depending on your type of asthma. Bronchoconstriction of the airways causes shortness of breath. This squeezing of the airways causes the outside of the airways to tighten, which results in less air passing into the lungs. This makes it difficult to breathe. The other symptom of asthma involves an inflammation of the airways. The airways will become swollen and inflamed, which causes mucus to form and block the airway. It is best to consult your doctor if you experience shortness of breath, coughing, or chest tightness. [1] 

Causes and Risk Factors

Asthma can be caused by genetic factors, environmental factors, and exposure to substances that trigger allergies. The three types of asthma can include:

Occupational asthma: This type of asthma is triggered by workplace irritants, including chemical fumes, gases, or dust.

Allergy-induced asthma: This type occurs when airborne substances like pollen, mold spores, or pet dander irritate your airways and cause asthma. Cat and dog dander are common irritants.

a black and white cat

Exercise-induced asthma: When you participate in rigorous exercise, it can irritate your airways and make it harder for you to breathe. Exercise-induced asthma may be worse at higher elevations and when the air is cold and dry. [2]

There is no single cause for asthma, but the following factors often contribute to the development of the condition:

  • Genetics
  • History of viral infections
  • Early allergen exposure
  • Respiratory illnesses like flu or pneumonia [3]

Am I Experiencing an Asthma Attack?

Asthma attacks, also known as asthma exacerbation, can be minor or severe. A minor attack of wheezing and coughing can be treated at home with the proper medications. If the home treatments are not doing the trick, it can become a life-threatening emergency. It is essential to recognize the early symptoms of an asthma flare-up. Symptoms of an asthma attack may include:

  • Severe shortness of breath, chest tightness, coughing, and wheezing
  • Symptoms that fail to respond to an emergency or rescue inhaler
  • Low peak expiratory flow (PEF) readings (Peak flow meters measure the maximum speed at which you can exhale air from your lungs)

Some common asthma attack triggers can include tobacco smoke, stress, upper respiratory infections, pollen, pets, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). If you feel an asthma attack coming on, you should follow your treatment plan. If the symptoms do not get better, you may need to seek emergency medical attention. If you do not seek treatment, it can result in respiratory arrest and possibly death. [4]

Diagnosing Asthma

If you feel that you are exhibiting asthma symptoms, your doctor may perform a physical exam as well as several lung function tests. Your doctor will also ask about any previous medical conditions. You are more likely to have asthma if you have allergies, eczema, or a family history of asthma.

Physical Exam: Doctors will examine your ears, eyes, nose, throat, skin, chest, and lungs. If you have more severe symptoms, they may also recommend an X-ray of your lungs or sinuses to make sure you don’t have other conditions like a sinus infection.

Lung function test: Breathing tests will measure how well you exhale air from your lungs. You will most likely take a spirometry test, which involves breathing into a mouthpiece. You will receive a deep breath and blow air out of your lungs as fast and as hard as you can. This test will show reduced lung function and help with diagnosis. If your condition improves with a bronchodilator (a medicine that reduces inflammation of the airways), then you most likely have asthma. [5]

a person taking a spirometry test


There are several treatments available to help with your asthma. Your doctor will prescribe you an inhaler based on your age, symptoms, and asthma triggers. You may also want to consider immunotherapy or allergy shots if you have severe allergies that impact your asthma. These shots reduce your immune response to specific allergens. There are two types of medications: long-term and quick relief.[6]

a. Long-term Asthma Control Medications

These medications are taken daily and are vital to your asthma treatment plan. Long-term medications keep your asthma symptoms under control on a day-to-day basis and reduce your chance of an asthma attack. There are several different types of these drugs, including:

Leukotriene modifiers: These oral medications help relieve symptoms for up to 24 hours. People are typically prescribed montelukast (Singulair) and zafirlukast (Accolate).

Inhaled corticosteroids: Corticosteroids are anti-inflammatory drugs that need to be used for several days to weeks before the patient feels the benefits. They are typically safe for long-term use and have few side effects. Fluticasone (Flonase) is a commonly prescribed inhaled corticosteroid.

Long-acting beta agonist: These medications are used in the treatment of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD). These drugs may increase the risk of severe asthma attacks because these drugs mask asthma deterioration.

Combination inhalers: These drugs contain long-acting beta agonists as well as an inhaled corticosteroid. They may increase your risk of a severe asthma attack. Fluticasone-salmeterol (Advair Diskus) is one such medication.

Theophylline: This is not an inhaled medication, but a daily pill that keeps the airways open by relaxing muscles around the airways. It is not as commonly used today.[6]

a man taking a spirometry test

b. Rescue medications

Short-acting beta agonists: These drugs are taken by a hand-held inhaler or nebulizer. The medication is put in the nebulizer and converted to a fine mist. The medication is then inhaled through a face mask. These drugs act within minutes to rapidly ease symptoms during an asthma attack. Ventolin is one such short-acting beta agonist.

Oral and intravenous corticosteroids: This medication is used to relieve severe asthma symptoms. Prednisone and methylprednisolone help reduce airway inflammation and should only be used on a short-term basis. [6]

The content in this article is intended for informational purposes only. This website does not provide medical advice. In all circumstances, you should always seek the advice of your physician and/or other qualified health professionals(s) for drug, medical condition, or treatment advice. The content provided on this website is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.