Asthma is a common lung condition that causes shortness of breath, coughing, tightness in your chest and wheezing. Asthma can range from mild to very severe, but medical treatments and lifestyle changes can help keep symptoms under control.
In this video, San Diego Health host Susan Taylor talks with Steven Zhao, MD, a pulmonologist at Scripps Clinic Torrey Pines and Scripps Clinic Anderson Medical Pavilion in La Jolla, about what causes asthma and how to manage it.
Asthma develops when your airways, which are the tubes that bring the air you inhale down into your lungs, are sensitive to substances in the environment called triggers.
Common environmental triggers for asthma include smoke, pollution or smog, electronic cigarettes or vapes, animal dander, grass or tree pollen and strong smells or perfumes. These triggers cause the airways to become irritated and inflamed. As a result, they swell and become narrow, a process called bronchospasm, which leads to shortness of breath, coughing and other symptoms.
Asthma affects people of all ages. While smoking, being overweight and having a family history of asthma may raise your risk, many people with the condition have no risk factors. About 75% of cases are diagnosed during childhood, but asthma develops in adults also. Because many conditions can cause coughing and shortness of breath, asthma can be tricky to diagnose in adults.
“One of the more typical hallmarks of asthma is that triad, that combination of coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath, but there are also other clues that can point towards asthma as a diagnosis,” says Dr. Zhao. “Typically, asthma is more sporadic in the sense that you might have asthma symptoms one day and be feeling totally fine by the next day.”
Without treatment, asthma can have potentially serious consequences. People who experience asthma flares, or exacerbations of their asthma, have symptoms that dramatically worsen over a few hours to a few days. They may have significant difficulty breathing and often need intensive treatment in an urgent care or emergency room. Over the long term, asthma can cause permanent damage to the airways.
Asthma treatments aim to reduce airway inflammation and relax the smooth muscles in your airway. This, in turn, reduces the narrowing of the airways and makes breathing easier.
Inhalers are the main types of medications for asthma. Available by prescription, inhalers are simple devices that deliver medication through your mouth and into your lungs to reduce inflammation and open the airways.
“There are a number of different kinds of inhalers that have various combinations of medications,” says Dr. Zhao. “Some are meant to be used purely on an as-needed basis when you develop symptoms, but many other inhalers need to be taken on a daily basis to have effect and help prevent flare ups or exacerbations.”
Dr. Zhao adds that the best way to manage asthma is to know your environmental triggers and avoid them as much as reasonably possible.
If you do have ongoing symptoms of shortness of breath or wheezing or coughing, make an appointment with your primary care doctor, an allergy specialist, or a pulmonologist, who specializes in respiratory care.
“It’s very possible that a lot of people with symptoms are living their lives not recognizing that they do have asthma. If you have symptoms, you should be evaluated by a doctor to see what the underlying cause is and get started on the right treatment,” says Dr. Zhao.
“Somebody with a confirmed diagnosis of asthma, depending on the severity of their symptoms, should get checked out anywhere from once every couple months to a couple times a year. We want to make sure that we’re matching the patient with the right medications.”