If you are experiencing shortness of breath, wheezing and coughing spells, especially at night, they may be signs that you have asthma.
Asthma is a swelling or inflammation of your airways. It is a long-term disease that causes the lining of the air passages to swell and the muscles surrounding the airways to become tight.
There is no cure for asthma, but if you have the condition, there are ways to control your symptoms through asthma inhalers and medications.
When thinking of how asthma affects you, think of how air enters your lungs. You breathe air in through your nose and mouth, and the air moves down the back of your throat into your windpipe or trachea. From there it moves into air passages called bronchial tubes and eventually into smaller air passages called bronchioles and air sacs called alveoli. Your lungs work best when the airways are open.
When you have asthma, your airways become inflamed, which makes them sensitive and swollen. Certain substances you inhale, like pollen, can cause them to react, which makes the muscles around the airways tighten. This decreases how much air reaches your lungs.
Symptoms of asthma include:
- A persistent cough, with or without phlegm, especially at night
- Shortness of breath that gets worse during physical activity or exercise
- Chest pain, tightness or pressure
Some people with asthma may have symptoms every day, while others go a long time without symptoms but then periodically suffer what's called an asthma attack, when their symptoms worsen. Treating mild symptoms can help prevent major episodes.
Your doctor will work with you to control your asthma. Treatment goals will include controlling your airway swelling, helping you do normal activities without feeling symptoms and staying away from substances that may trigger your symptoms.
There are two main types of asthma medications used to treat the condition. Long-term medications, called maintenance or controller medicines, help prevent symptoms if you have moderate to severe asthma. It's best to take them every day, even if you feel as though you don't need them.
Quick-relief medicines, including short-acting asthma inhalers, called bronchodilators, are meant to be taken when you experience coughing, wheezing, trouble breathing or other signs of an asthma attack. You may also take them just before exercising. An example of a bronchodilators asthma inhaler is Proventil HFA.
Your doctor may give you a peak-flow meter, which measures how quickly you are moving air out of your lungs. It can help you tell when an attack may be coming so that you can take your medicine or take other precautions.
There are other preventative steps you can take, such as covering your bed with allergy-proof casings and vacuuming regularly. Unscented detergents and cleaning materials can decrease the chance of irritating your airways, while low humidity levels can keep organisms that can be irritants, like mold, from growing.
If your asthma doesn't improve after you use a quick-relief inhaler, it may be a sign that you are having a severe asthma attack. Other symptoms include wheezing or shortness of breath that rapidly gets worse, and shortness of breath even though you are not being physically active. Seek emergency treatment if you believe you are having a severe attack.
Not treating asthma can lead to other health conditions, including a persistent cough, lack of sleep, trouble breathing, decreased ability to take part in activities and problems with your lungs. Severe cases can be fatal.
There is no cure for asthma, but there are ways you can control it and lead a normal life. Work with your doctor to develop a long-term plan and call him or her right away if your asthma seems to be getting worse. Maintain regular appointments with your doctor in case you need any adjustments to your medication.
For more information about asthma and to learn more about common asthma medications and view available drug discounts, visit our Asthma conditions page.