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Asthma: At a Glance

By The Manual's Editorial Staff,

In people with asthma, the airways narrow, making breathing difficult. Airway narrowing is reversible.

In people who have asthma, the airways narrow in response to stimuli that do not usually affect the airways in normal lungs (triggers). Such triggers include

  • Allergens (such as pollens, particles from dust mites, or animal dander)

  • Infections

  • Irritants (such as smoke from tobacco, perfumes, cleaning products, air pollution, and cold air)

  • Exercise, stress, and anxiety

  • Aspirin

For a full discussion, see Asthma.

Who Gets Asthma?

Asthma affects more than 25 million people in the United States, and it is becoming more common. It is one of the most common chronic diseases of childhood, but adults can also develop asthma, even at an old age.

People who work with certain substances (such as grains, western red cedar wood, dyes, antibiotics, and enzymes used to manufacturing certain products) may develop occupational asthma.

What Are the Symptoms of Asthma?

People with asthma have

  • Wheezing

  • Coughing

  • Shortness of breath

Some people with asthma are symptom-free most of the time, with only an occasional, brief, mild episode of shortness of breath. Other people cough and wheeze most of the time and have severe attacks after exposure to triggers.

How Is Asthma Diagnosed?

Doctors diagnose asthma mostly based on the person’s symptoms. They also confirm the diagnosis by doing lung (pulmonary) function tests to determine how well the lungs are functioning.

In people with asthma, doctors use spirometery (an abbreviated form of lung function testing) to monitor the effectiveness of treatment. A peak flow meter is often used at home to monitor the severity of asthma.

How Is Asthma Treated?

Asthma is treated with

  • Anti-inflammatory drugs, which suppress the inflammation that causes airway narrowing

  • Bronchdilators, which relax and widen the airways

Drugs used to treat asthma are often inhaled.

All people with asthma should have a written treatment plan made in collaboration with their doctor. Such a plan enables them to take control of their own treatment and decreases the number of times people need to seek care for asthma in the emergency department.

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