Have you, or someone you know, been diagnosed with asthma? If so, you probably have lots of questions.
You may wonder, for example, just what asthma is. The medical definition of asthma is simple, but the condition itself is quite complex.
Doctors define asthma as a "chronic inflammatory disease of the airway" that causes the following symptoms:
- Chronic (regular) cough.
- Shortness of breath
- A feeling of tightness in the chest
If you suspect you might have asthma, your doctor will evaluate your medical history and your family's and also perform lung-function tests. Additionally, he or she may prescribe medications that can conclusively determine whether or not you have asthma.
Symptoms of asthma come and go; you may experience some of them and yet not know for certain whether you've got asthma or not. For example, you might experience trouble breathing with exercise or get more 'chest' infections than other people do.
Persistent cough is a common sign of lung disease. Coughing is a major feature of asthma, especially in children. If your infant or child coughs to the point of vomiting, discuss the possibility of asthma with your doctor. There are reasons other than asthma for a long-term cough, like whooping cough and postnasal drip.
Only a doctor can diagnose asthma. Conditions such as pneumonia, cystic fibrosis, heart disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) have to be ruled out before your doctor can be certain that you have asthma.
It is important to talk to your doctor about all of your concerns and to ask lots of questions. Something that you may not think is relevant may be useful in pinpointing the problem. Use the checklist found at the end of the booklet called 'Diagnosis' to help you prepare for a discussion with your doctor.
Depending on your circumstances, your doctor will evaluate some or all of the following:
- Your medical history
- Your family history
- What your symptoms are, how frequently they occur and whether they improve with medication
- Whether you have allergies
- What your individual triggers are (that is, what things or situations tend to lead to your experiencing asthma symptoms)
- Your lung function, using tests like peak flow monitoring and spirometry to determine how quickly you can expel air
You are more likely to have asthma if you have a parent or close relative with allergies and/or asthma. Your chance of having asthma is also increased if you have a history of:
- Wheezing, even though you did not have a cold
- Inflammation in the nose, called allergic rhinitis
- Eczema, an allergic skin condition
Many people with asthma also have allergies, and your doctor may refer you to an allergist if you are experiencing asthma symptoms. However, just as not everyone who has allergies develops asthma, not everyone who has asthma has allergies. Researchers are still trying to determine the exact relationship between the two.
No one is born with an allergy, but you can have a genetic tendency to develop one. If both your parents have allergies, you will have a 75% chance of also developing them.
Asthma and allergies are related, but they are not the same thing. An allergy is a reaction to a substance that is usually harmless. These substances (allergens) can be inhaled, injected, swallowed, or touched. Being exposed to an allergen may cause irritation and swelling in specific areas of the body, such as the nose, eyes, lungs, and skin. Allergens like pollen, mould, animal dander and dust mites can make asthma symptoms worse by increasing the inflammation in the airways and making them more sensitive. The best way to find out if you are allergic to something is to have an allergy assessment done.
Rhinitis and sinusitis are different but related conditions, that often make asthma symptoms worse.
Rhinitis is when the lining of the nose becomes inflamed and it usually occurs after exposure to an aeroallergen such ragweed. Sinusitis is when the lining of the sinus cavities become inflamed and infected and this generally happens after a viral, bacterial or fungal infection.
If you have asthma and also develop rhinitis or sinusitis, your doctor may recommend nasal corticosteroid sprays or other treatments in addition to your regular asthma medication. By managing your sinusitis or rhinitis, your asthma will be better controlled.
To find out more about the differences between sinusitis, rhinitis, the common cold and the flu, as well as detailed prevention and treatment options, see our 'Comparison Chart'.
GERD is short form for gastro esophageal reflux disease or acid reflux.
In most people, GERD is simply ordinary heartburn. Acid reflux can cause asthma symptoms, particularly coughing, when stomach acid travels up the esophagus and irritates the airways of the lungs.
If you do not respond to conventional asthma treatments, or if your asthma symptoms appear to be associated with heartburn, ask your doctor to have you checked for acid reflux.
As you have learned, asthma affects different people in different ways, and its symptoms can vary over time. That's why it's so important to work closely with your doctor or an asthma educator to determine the medications and management strategies that are right for you.