May 10, 2022
5 min. read

How to Control and Treat Asthma Symptoms

Medly

Asthma affects approximately 25 million people in the U.S. It’s also the most common chronic condition among American children: in the United States, 1 out of every 12 children has asthma. 

When a person has asthma, their airways become inflamed, narrow and swell, and produce extra mucus, making it difficult to breathe. While there is currently no cure for asthma, there are treatments available to prevent asthma attacks so you can participate in sports and other activities. By working together with your healthcare provider, you can develop an asthma action plan that includes how and when to use your medications, what to do when you have symptoms, and when to seek emergency care. 

What is asthma?

Asthma, also called bronchial asthma, is a disease that affects your lungs. In people without asthma, breathing involves taking in air through your nose and mouth, down into your throat, into your airways and lungs. In your lungs, there are many small air passages that help deliver oxygen into your bloodstream. 

In those with asthma, however, the lining of these airways swell and the muscles around them tighten. Mucus then fills the airways, making it even harder for air to pass through. These conditions lead to an asthma “attack,” which is the coughing and tightness in the chest that’s typical of asthma. 

What is an asthma attack? 

Normally when breathing, the muscles around your airways are relaxed enough to let air move through easily and quietly. 

During an asthma attack, however, three things can happen: 

  • Bronchospasm. Bronchospasm occurs when the airways tighten and constrict, narrowing your airways and making it difficult for air to move through. 
  • Inflammation. The lining of your airways can also become swollen, restricting the air in and out of your lungs.
  • Mucus production. During an asthma attack, your body produces mucus, furthering the difficulty of air movement. 

What are the signs and symptoms of asthma? 

There are a number of different types of asthma, which will affect the types of symptoms you experience. The most common symptoms of asthma is wheezing, a squealing or whistling sound that occurs when you breathe. 

Other symptoms include: 

  • coughing, especially at night, when laughing, or during exercise
  • tightness in the chest
  • shortness of breath
  • difficulty talking
  • anxiousness or panic
  • fatigue
  • chest pain
  • rapid breathing
  • frequent infections
  • trouble sleeping

If you experience any of the following emergency symptoms, you should seek immediate medical attention: 

  • severe breathing difficulty
  • gasping for air
  • confusion
  • pale lips or fingernails
  • dizziness
  • difficulty walking or talking
  • blue lips or fingernails

How is asthma diagnosed? 

To diagnose you with asthma, your healthcare provider will conduct a thorough exam and collect your medical history, including information about your parents and siblings. They will also ask about your symptoms. If you have a history of allergies, eczema, or other lung disease, be sure to mention this to your provider. 

Your doctor may order a test called spirometry, which measures airflow through your lungs and is used to diagnose and monitor your progress with treatment. Sometimes, though not always, they may also order a chest X-ray, blood test or skin test. 

How is asthma treated? 

Your treatment will depend upon your age, your asthma triggers, and the type of asthma you have. It will help to classify your asthma to determine the best course of treatment. Asthma is classified into four categories: intermittent, mild persistent, moderate persistent, and severe persistent. 

Treatment usually involves quick relief medications, long-term control medications, and use of biologics, which are given by injection or infusion usually only for severe forms of asthma. 

Quick relief medications 

Quick relief medications should be used in the event of asthma symptoms or an attack, as they are meant to provide quick relief to help you breathe again. These medications are known as bronchodilators, which work within minutes to help relax the muscles around your airways, which lets air move through, and they also let mucus move more easily through the airways.

Bronchodilators can be administered orally or injected, though they are most commonly taken with an inhaler or nebulizer.

If your symptoms persist for more than 20 minutes and a second round of medication doesn’t help, seek emergency care.

Long-term control medications 

Long-term control medications are medications taken daily to reduce the number and severity of asthma symptoms. Unlike quick relief medications, however, they will not help manage the immediate symptoms of an attack. 

Long-term medications include: 

  • Anti-inflammatories. Anti-inflammatory medications and corticosteroids can help reduce swelling and mucus production in your airways. 
  • Anticholinergics. Anticholinergics are usually taken daily in combination with anti-inflammatories. They help stop your muscles from tightening around your airways. 
  • Long-acting bronchodilators. Long-acting bronchodilator inhalers (LABAs) relax the muscles around your airways to help keep your airways open, and should be used in combination with anti-inflammatory asthma medications. 

Biologics 

For severe asthma when symptoms persist despite proper inhaler therapy, biologics can be used. They work by targeting specific antibodies in your body, which can prevent asthma-causing inflammation. 

You can take your asthma medications in a variety of different ways, either breathing in the medicines using a metered-dose inhaler, or by using a nebulizer or another type of asthma inhaler. Your healthcare provider may also prescribe oral medications that you swallow.

How can I prevent an asthma attack?

There are a few strategies you can try to prevent asthma attacks. These include: 

  • Avoiding triggers. If you have noticed that certain chemicals, smells, or products have caused you breathing problems in the past, avoiding these is a good way to prevent an asthma attack. 
  • Avoid allergens. Allergens like dust and mold can also trigger asthma attacks. Do you best to avoid them. 
  • Get allergy shots. Getting allergy shots can help alter your immune system to become less sensitive to any triggers you encounter. 
  • Take preventive medication. The long-term control medications mentioned above can be used to prevent asthma attacks. 

While asthma can be a difficult condition to live with, there are treatments available that will allow you to live a very active life where you can participate in sports and other activities that are important to you. Talk to your healthcare provider about how to manage your symptoms, learn your triggers, and prevent future attacks. 

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