Asthma is a long-term disease that narrows your airways. When active or poorly controlled, asthma makes breathing more difficult. However, symptoms may be mild. They may come and go. For those and other reasons, it's not always easy to tell if you have asthma.
People who have a parent with asthma are more likely to have it themselves. People with asthma may also have a history of allergies.
Asthma can be especially difficult to diagnose in children under the age of 5. That's partly because their airways are smaller and they may wheeze when they have respiratory infections such as colds. Also, other conditions can bring on symptoms similar to asthma.
Common asthma symptoms
The most common symptoms of asthma are:
- Shortness of breath. You may feel like you can't catch your breath. You may also feel like you can't fully breathe out.
- Wheezing. Wheezing is a squeaking or whistling sound when you breathe.
- Cough — either wet or dry. The cough is often worse at night and early in the morning. For some, more commonly in children, a chronic cough may be their only symptom.
- Chest tightness. It may feel like something is squeezing your chest. This may also be a symptom of a heart attack, which requires emergency medical attention.
Some severe symptoms may occur during an asthma attack and require emergency treatment. Those include:
- Bluish lips and face
- Extreme trouble breathing
- Trouble walking and talking because you're out of breath
- Confusion, agitation, anxiety or change in level of consciousness
If you are feeling worse and your wheezing is diminishing or stops, it may mean that your symptoms have worsened and your airways are too narrow to generate air movement to create wheezing. If someone is experiencing any of these symptoms, call 911 immediately for emergency medical treatment.
Most people with asthma have a treatment plan developed by their doctor. It's important to treat your symptoms when you first notice them. You can often prevent them from getting worse. Asthma attacks can last minutes or days. If left untreated, asthma can be fatal.
For some people, asthma flare-ups can be triggered by tobacco smoke, air pollution, pets, dust mites, cockroaches, mold, cold air or exercise. Other triggers can include respiratory infections or strong emotions. A trigger for one person may not be a trigger for another.
To find out if you have asthma, your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and your family history. He or she will do a physical exam that will focus on your upper respiratory tract, chest and skin.
The doctor may do a breathing test called spirometry. Spirometry measures how well your lungs are working. It involves taking a deep breath and then breathing out into a mouthpiece.
Your doctor may also order more tests to help determine if other conditions could be causing your symptoms. These may include a chest X-ray or allergy testing.
Controlling your asthma
Most people who have been diagnosed with asthma have a treatment plan developed by their doctor. It is important to follow that Asthma Action Plan.
Your doctor can prescribe medicine for your asthma. Some medicines are taken as a pill. Others are inhaled. Some are for long-term use and some are to use only when you have an attack. Use the medicines as your doctor advises.
It's also important to recognize and avoid the things that trigger your asthma, if you can. What sparks your asthma may not be the same as what triggers someone else's.
When your asthma is well controlled, you'll have a better chance of breathing easier.
Created on 06/18/2010
Updated on 01/14/2013
- National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. What is asthma?
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What is asthma?