The word asthma comes from the Greek word meaning “panting” or “noisy breathing.” Asthma is a chronic lung condition in which there are changes that occur in the airways, producing bronchoconstriction (squeezing or spasm) and inflammation of the airways.
Asthma symptoms include wheezing, shortness of breath, cough, and chest tightness. Symptoms can vary in severity, from intermittent and mild bouts of breathlessness, to daily wheezing that persists despite chronic therapy. Some asthma attacks can be life threatening.
A variety of situations and factors can cause or worsen asthma. These include environmental factors (such as dust mites, animal dander, pollen, and smoke), exercise, occupational exposures, respiratory infections, reflux disease, aspirin, and others.
Asthma is usually chronic, although occasionally it goes into long periods of remission. American adults have a 10% lifetime risk of developing asthma.
When asthma is suspected, the patient should see his or her physician, and describe any pattern to the symptoms or precipitating factors, including:
1) whether exercise, respiratory infection, or exposure to cold air has ever triggered an attack.
2) if symptoms are more frequent during a particular season (or seasons)
3) if there is any family history of asthma or allergies
4) if there are any recurring occupational exposures or any relationship of asthma symptoms to work
If symptoms and the patient’s history suggest asthma, the doctor will usually perform a thorough physical examination and pulmonary function tests (breathing tests) to confirm the diagnosis and determine its severity.
While medications, especially inhalers, play an essential role in the management of asthma, there are other important aspects of care. These include identifying and avoiding asthma triggers, recognizing environmental issues, diet, home monitoring, psychosocial support, and good communication between doctor and patient.