Basic Information About Asthma

Here is a primer on asthma, including how it's diagnosed and what you can do about it.

You may experience it as wheezing. Maybe you wake up at night coughing. Either can be a sign of asthma. You are not alone.

More than 20 million Americans have asthma.

What is asthma?
Asthma is a chronic inflammatory lung disease that affects children and adults. Certain triggers constrict the airways leading to the lungs (called bronchi). The lining of these airways swells and excess mucus builds up. Together, these actions can severely restrict air flow. This can cause difficult breathing, wheezing and coughing.

Symptoms of asthma occur when a "trigger" sets off this chain reaction. An asthma trigger is often an irritant or allergen (something you're allergic to).

You can help take control of your asthma by taking four steps:

  • Work with your doctor to learn asthma self-care.
  • Learn about your medicines and how to take them.
  • Identify your asthma triggers, and avoid them.
  • Know how to self-monitor your asthma and what to do if you have signs of an asthma attack.

What are the symptoms of asthma?
Symptoms of asthma may include:

  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath, perhaps only with exercise
  • Feeling a tightness in the chest
  • Coughing, which may occur only at night

Who is at risk?
Asthma tends to run in families. People who have allergies are also at increased risk of developing asthma. Eighty percent of children and half of adults with asthma also have allergies.

What are the most common triggers for asthma symptoms?
A trigger is something that causes asthma symptoms. The most common are:

  • Allergens, such as dust mites, cockroaches, mold and pollen
  • Weather
  • Exercise
  • Airborne irritants such as chemical fumes, tobacco and wood stove smoke
  • Respiratory infections
  • Strong emotions, such as laughing, crying and stress

Diagnosing asthma
It's easy to confuse asthma symptoms with a bad cold and cough. But colds go away. Asthma does not. What's more, having untreated asthma means you are at risk of a serious - even life-threatening - asthma attack. So if you think you have asthma, see your doctor. And if you've already seen the doctor and still have trouble managing symptoms, it may be time to adjust treatment or refine the diagnosis.

Your doctor will ask you questions about symptoms and listen to your lungs. The doctor will ask you:

  • About coughing - if your cough is worse at night or with exercise and if you bring up mucous.
  • About shortness of breath - if you tend to get out of breath when you exercise, or if you have breathing problems at certain times of the year.
  • About other symptoms, such as chest tightness and wheezing.

You will have a breathing test called spirometry. This test measures the amount of air you can move out of your lungs. It also can tell if treatment is effective by comparing the results before and after you take your medication.




© UnitedHealthcare