Inhouse Pharmacy’s Guide to Asthma Signs & Symptoms

A woman in the outdoors, mouth open as if gasping for breath.

Understanding the signs and symptoms of asthma is the first step to treating this dangerous condition. Under a doctor’s supervision, asthma management allows you to have a normal, active lifestyle. With the proper medications from a regulated pharmacy, like Inhouse Pharmacy, you can regain control of your life. We’ve compiled a list of some of the most common questions our patients have about asthma, to help you better understand your health and wellness.

About Asthma

What is asthma?

Asthma is a long-term or chronic inflammatory disease of the airways of the lungs characterized by breathing difficulties. Asthma signs and symptoms include wheezing, tightness of the chest, shortness of breath, and a chronic cough. The small airways or bronchioles of sufferers are inflamed, causing them to become narrow while making them sensitive to irritation and allergic reaction. There can also be a predisposition to asthma when there’s a family history of the disease.

What causes an asthma attack?

The cause of an asthma attack is inflammation of the bronchioles and bronchospasm, a constriction of the airways in response to a trigger. Inflamed airways are over-sensitive to asthma triggers, and managing inflammation is key to minimizing asthma symptoms.

What is an asthma trigger?

An asthma trigger is anything that worsens asthma signs and symptoms, usually falling into two categories:

  • Allergic triggers that induce an allergic reaction: house dust mites (their droppings contain a very allergenic enzyme), animal dander (fur, hair, skin flakes, saliva), pollen, mold. Allergic asthma triggers also include certain foods like eggs, milk, seafood, nuts, and some medicines including aspirin, NSAIDs like ibuprofen, and beta-blockers.
  • Non-allergic triggers that are irritants to sensitive airways but do not cause an allergic reaction: viral infections, air pollution, cigarette smoke, cold air, exercise, emotions, and hormonal changes such as during pregnancy or the menstrual cycle.

What does an asthma trigger do?

Airways that are already inflamed are also very sensitive and easily irritated, which makes them react to certain triggers by contracting, swelling, and becoming clogged with mucus. These responses result in a narrowing of the airways and cause difficulty breathing as it becomes harder to allow air in. The characteristic asthma wheezing is a sign that air is being trapped in the blocked airways when you try to exhale and other asthma signs and symptoms indicate that the airways are blocked and narrowed.

How do I know if I have asthma?

You may have mild asthma without knowing if symptoms are not severe; however, consistently exhibiting symptoms, a family history, or a history of allergies can be prime indicators. Some forms of asthma seem to come and go. When asthma signs and symptoms are only triggered by, for example, allergic reaction, infection, or exercise, which may make asthma diagnosis more difficult. Lung function tests should be requested if you have asthma and need treatment and will reveal whether or not you need asthma management.

What is bronchospasm?

The smallest tubes of the breathing airways, bronchioles, are only a few millimeters wide and consist of an inner lining surrounded by bands of smooth muscle. Normally, these muscles are relaxed, allowing air to pass freely through the bronchioles into the air sacs of the lungs. Triggers cause the band of muscles around the bronchioles to contract, making breathing difficult. This narrowing of the bronchioles is called bronchospasm and is the cause of asthma signs and symptoms. These symptoms can become severe during an asthma attack. Using an inhaled bronchodilator reverses bronchospasm and opens up the airways making breathing easier.

What is an asthma attack?

An asthma attack is when symptoms for asthma suddenly get worse very quickly in response to a trigger due to bronchospasm. People with asthma may not have severe symptoms for long periods, then develop occasional asthma attacks, which can be relieved using an inhaler containing a bronchodilator, such as Ventolin, which widens the airways. Sometimes an asthma attack may last for longer, in which case other asthma management medication is usually given.

Common Asthma Diagnosis Questions

How is asthma diagnosed?

If you have asthma signs and symptoms, your doctor will take a full medical history to see whether there are any asthma risk factors or a history of incidence in your family. There are other conditions that need to be ruled out before asthma can be confirmed, such as bronchitis, pneumonia, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which is an irreversible respiratory disease. A doctor may order lung function tests to determine how much air you can breathe into your lungs.

What is a lung function test?

A lung function test is the best way to confirm that you have asthma signs and symptoms. These tests measure your lung capacity and determine the rate of airflow in and out of your lungs. These may be done with an asthma challenge where you are asked to inhale a known trigger that will induce bronchospasm and then retested to see how well you respond to a bronchodilator. If the challenge reduces your lung function which is then restored by a bronchodilator, it is a good indication that you have asthma.

What is a peak flow meter?

The peak flow meter comprises a plastic tube with a Peak Expiratory Flow (PEF) measuring gauge and a mouthpiece. When you blow into the tube the gauge measures the rate and force that you can breathe air out of your lungs in a rapid exhale after you have filled your lungs with air. Your normal PEF is estimated according to your height, weight, age, and gender. A reduced peak flow indicates narrowed airways, a potential warning sign that your asthma signs and symptoms are worsening. It is important to use a peak flow meter regularly as part of your asthma management.

What is spirometry?

Spirometry measures the amount and rate of airflow in and out of your lungs to gauge your asthma signs and symptoms. The test is based on how much air you can force out of your lungs when you blow out into a mouthpiece as quickly as possible after taking a full breath, and how long it takes you to empty your lungs over a measured period of time. Airflow is measured by a spirometer connected to the tube that you are asked to blow into. Normal lung function is based on age, height, ethnicity, and gender and is expressed as 100%. A measurement of 80% or below is considered to be below normal and is indicative of asthma or other obstructive respiratory disorder.

Can I prevent asthma?

Asthma cannot be prevented, but you can take steps to control and prevent asthma signs and symptoms from becoming severe and interfering with a full and active life. It’s important you learn the facts about the condition, asthma management techniques, and follow your physician’s instructions.

A woman blowing a dandelion puff, sending its spores into the air.

Is asthma the same as an allergy?

Asthma and allergies are not the same condition, but asthma attacks can be triggered by allergies.

Are there different types of asthma?

Asthma signs and symptoms can be caused by several diseases. The most common is allergic asthma, or extrinsic asthma, which is triggered by an allergic response to one or more known allergens. Non-allergic, or intrinsic, asthma is triggered by direct effects on the nerves in the airways and the more common triggers include exercise, irritants like cigarette smoke or chemicals, stress, emotions, cold air, some medications like aspirin. Another asthma type is occupational asthma, where the symptoms are triggered by something in the work environment.

Is asthma dangerous?

Asthma signs and symptoms range from very mild to very severe and debilitating. Asthma attacks are usually rapidly relieved by using a bronchodilator medication to open the airways, however, asthma attacks can be severe and prolonged. If the bronchodilator medication does not help, there is a risk that breathing difficulties can become life-threatening and require emergency treatment. Uncontrolled asthma can cause damage to the airways.

What is asthma management?

Managing asthma is making sure your asthma is well controlled so that you can have long periods without signs and symptoms of asthma. Make sure you take advantage of asthma education to understand how asthma disease works, have a personalized asthma action plan to help you recognize and avoid triggers, recognize when symptoms are getting worse, and understand the medication you need to use and how to use them effectively. There are also asthma breathing exercises that may help with managing asthma.

In Part 2 of our Asthma FAQ, we’ll talk more about symptom management, working with your doctor, and how leading medications from regulated pharmacies can help you control your asthma signs and symptoms. Get your asthma medication from Inhouse Pharmacy today.

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