Asthma can make it hard to breathe, as airways narrow and swell. Sometimes the condition produces other symptoms, such as extra mucus. Asthma is the most common chronic disease in children around the world and affects 1 in 12 adults in the U.K.
Unfortunately, asthma has no cure. For some people, the condition is a minor nuisance and can be controlled with minimal interventions. For others, it interferes with daily activities, affects quality of life and puts people at risk of life-threatening asthma attacks. Key to keeping asthma symptoms in check is having effective day-to-day control, which can also help prevent asthma attacks, says John Costello, M.D., a pulmonologist at Mayo Clinic Healthcare, located in London.
Common asthma symptoms include:
- Shortness of breath
- Wheezing when exhaling
- Chest tightness
- Wheezing or coughing attacks worsened by a respiratory virus
- Trouble sleeping caused by coughing, shortness of breath or wheezing
For most people, asthma comes and goes, though triggers, such as allergies or viruses, may make asthma worse. Symptom flare-up can be caused by certain situations, such as exercise, cold weather and even thunderstorms. Scientists don't have a full understanding of why some people have the condition.
"There's a very big genetic component to asthma, as there is to allergy, but the absolute definition of the genes involved is still under investigation and still much debatable," Dr. Costello says. "So the prevention of asthma as a condition is quite difficult. What you can prevent is the frequency and severity of attacks by the use of regular treatment."
Understanding a child's asthma may be tricky for parents, as children can have a hard time describing the symptoms they feel. Parents sometimes notice that the child has chest infections more often than friends or siblings do, or parents will hear frequent wheezing. There may be a family history of asthma, wheezing, coughing, breathlessness or allergy — factors that can point to an asthma diagnosis.
For reasons not entirely understood, asthma often improves around the early teens, Dr. Costello says. However, asthma often returns later in life, given the right circumstances.
People with asthma should consult with their health care providers to review local and international treatment guidelines. Together, they can design a plan for living with asthma, preventing attacks and recognizing when stronger therapies are needed. The use of inhalers (inhalation therapy) is often the treatment of choice, though people with severe asthma may need additional therapies, such as corticosteroids that are given by IV or orally.
And if the patient is not responding, then admission to the hospital is needed to make sure that these medicines are administered efficiently, Dr. Costello says.