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Asthma - Diagnosis, Symptoms, and Treatments


What is Asthma?

Asthma is a disease that makes breathing difficult. Asthma affects the airways causing them to become narrow or blocked when a person has exacerbation or an attack.

Asthmatics have airways that are more sensitive to triggers because the airways are always inflamed. When there is a triggering event, muscles around the inflamed airways begin to tighten making it difficult to breathe.
Asthma affects people of all ages, and frequently begins during childhood. In the United States, more than 22 million people are known to have asthma, with nearly 6 million of those diagnosed being children.

Symptoms of Asthma

Not everyone with asthma has the same symptomatology. Common symptoms include:

  • A wheezing or whistling sound when breathing
  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Frequent chest colds

Sometimes asthma symptoms are mild and dissipate on their own or with minimal treatment. Other times, symptoms continue to worsen. When symptoms become more intense and/or the number of symptoms increases, that is when an asthma attack occurs.

What Causes Asthma?

Asthma is a chronic lung disease that narrows and inflames the airways, making them more reactive to certain inhaled substances. Because the condition is chronic, there is no cure. The exact cause of asthma isn’t known. There has been some speculation as to whether genetics or heredity play a role in the development of the condition; however, clinically significant results have not supported this position.

Diagnosis of Asthma

Asthma is diagnosed based on medical history, physical examination, and test results. In children under the age of 5, asthma is difficult to diagnose, according to pediatricians.

Your doctor will also determine the severity of your asthma; whether it’s intermittent, mild, moderate, or severe. The level of severity will determine what treatment if any, will be recommended.

During the physical examination, the doctor will listen to your breathing and look for signs of asthma including wheezing, swollen nasal passages and/or runny nose amongst others. In addition, the doctor may conduct a spirometry test to determine how the lungs are working. This test measures how much air is taken in and breathed out; as well as how fast air is expelled.
Other test may be recommended in attempting to diagnose an asthmatic condition to include:

  • Bronchoprovocation, to measure how sensitive the airways are.
  • A test to indicate whether symptoms (similar to asthma symptoms) are related to other conditions such as sleep apnea, reflux disease, or vocal cord dysfunction.
  • An electrocardiogram or EKG to determine whether a foreign object or other disease may be causing your symptoms.

It’s important to treat asthma symptoms as soon as they are noticed. This will help prevent the symptoms from becoming worse and causing a more severe attack. Sever attacks can require emergency treatment and can be fatal.

Treatment of Asthma

Asthma is a long-term disease that requires long-term care; as such, there is no cure for asthma. Successful asthma treatment requires taking an active role in the care of the condition, learning how to successfully manage it, securing ongoing care, and being mindful of symptomatology and if the condition worsens.

The treatment goal with asthma is to control the condition by adhering to an asthma action plan created with your physician, learning about substances or conditions that trigger an attack, taking medication as prescribed, and tracking levels for better control.

Asthma is treated with two forms of medication: quick relief and long term control. Both medications are used via an inhaler, which supplies medicine directly to the lungs. The types and amount of medication prescribed is contingent upon how well the condition is controlled when close adherence to the asthma action plan.

Prevention and Maintenance of Asthma

Most people who have been diagnosed with asthma are able to manage the disease successfully. When partnering with their physician and following the guidelines of their asthma action plan, they have few, if any, symptoms and can live normal and active lives. In order to decrease the possibility of future attacks, it is important to track the condition by using a peak flow meter, recording symptoms, and making sure to get regular asthma follow ups. If the condition worsens, notify your physician and provide as much detailed information as possible.

One asthma trigger that should not be avoided is physical activity. Physical activity is an important part of a healthy lifestyle and can serve to strengthen lung capacity overall. Your physician may be able to offer suggestions as to medications that can help you stay active.



NHLBI Expert Panel Report 3 (EPR3): Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Asthma. Available at:

http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/guidelines/asthma/asthgdln.htm. Accessed July 20, 2011.