May is Asthma Awareness Month, and in honor of that we wanted to get back to the basics – what is asthma and how does one get diagnosed with the disease?
What is asthma?
Asthma is a chronic disease that causes the airways in the lungs to narrow, causing wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness and coughing. Asthma is caused by inflammation, swelling, constriction and excess mucus production. An asthma attack occurs when the lining of the airways swells, reducing the amount of air that can pass through the airway.
Asthma symptoms are caused by certain stimuli, known as “triggers.” Common asthma triggers are:

  • Dust mites
  • Animals
  • Certain medications
  • Changes in weather
  • Tobacco smoke
  • Pollen
  • Mold
  • Exercise
  • Chemicals in the air or in food
  • Respiratory infections
  • Emotions such as stress, anxiety or anger

Asthma attacks vary from person to person, they can last for minutes to days, and range in severity level from moderate to severe and life-threatening. Common signs of an asthma attack are:

  • Coughing, unrelated to a cold
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Wheezing or noisy breathing
  • Chest tightness or chest pain
  • Listlessness or lack of energy

Emergency signs that require IMMEDIATE medical assistance include: blue or gray colored lips or fingernails, rapid breathing or extreme difficulty breathing, being unable to speak in sentences and rapid pulse.
How do you get diagnosed?
If you suspect you or your child has asthma, a doctor will need to evaluate them. A lung function test will be administered to determine how much air moves in and out of your lungs as you breathe. Possible tests that may be used:

  • Spirometry – A test to check the air volume and flow rate within the lungs. In other words, how much air you can exhale after a deep breath and how fast you breathe out.
  • Peak flow – Measures how hard you breathe out. This test can also be used to monitor your asthma if you’ve been diagnosed.

Other tests that may be administered can include chest x-rays and allergy testing, among other tests, depending on the case.
Treatment will vary from patient to patient, but will generally consist of control medicines to help prevent attacks and quick-relief medicines for use during attacks. You should work with your doctor to develop a personalized asthma action plan to monitor your asthma. Knowing and avoiding your triggers, taking your medicine, and following your doctors instructions will help you control your asthma.