The experience of asthma in adults varies widely, from “It’s not that big of a deal” to “I can’t breathe at all.” In all, more than 25 million Americans (adults and children) struggle with the effects of asthma on their breathing—and their daily lives.
Asthma is a disease that makes your airways temporarily swell, become narrow and produce too much mucus. This narrowing is called bronchospasm, and it prevents air from moving freely in and out of your lungs. This causes symptoms like shortness of breath, coughing and chest tightness. Wheezing, a whistling sound during breathing, is the hallmark of asthma. Asthma symptoms and attacks are usually tied to the inhalation of specific substances, known as triggers.
Asthma affects people of all ages. Adult onset is common, although it often begins in childhood. More women than men have it. The cause of asthma is mostly unknown, but it appears to run in families. One known cause is exposure to industrial or chemical irritants in the workplace.
There is no cure for asthma. If you have it, you have it all the time—even when you feel fine.
To help reduce your risk of asthma attacks, be sure you know:
- The things in your life that can trigger an attack
- Ways to avoid triggers
- Steps to take to control and relieve asthma symptoms
The most common asthma triggers include:
- Tobacco smoke
- Dust mites
- Air pollution
- Cockroaches and their droppings
- Furry pets and pet dander
- Mold spores
- Smoke from burning wood or plants
- Pollens from grasses, trees and flowers
Less common asthma triggers include:
- Physical exercise: Since exercise is important for good health, talk to your health professional about medications that may help you stay active.
- Some medications, like aspirin and certain prescription drugs
- Upper respiratory infections like the cold or flu
- Acid reflux
- Weather extremes like cold, dry air or high humidity
- Some foods, food additives and fragrances
- Strong emotions can lead to very fast breathing—or hyperventilation--which can cause an asthma attack.
Note that one or more of your personal triggers may not be listed here. Tell your doctor about anything that seems to trigger your asthma symptoms. If you aren’t sure if you have asthma, contact your doctor for an evaluation.
Asthma and Allergies
Most people with asthma also have allergies. When this happens, the same substances that trigger allergy symptoms (allergens) may trigger asthma symptoms as well. This condition is called allergic asthma or allergy-induced asthma. About 50% of those with asthma suffer from this type.
An allergy starts when your body’s immune system mistakenly flags a normally harmless substance as an invader. This can happen at any time, even if you’ve often inhaled the substance before. Trying to protect your body, your immune system prepares for the next invasion by developing special protective cells, called antibodies, to fight that invader if you’re exposed to it again. Your body is now sensitized to the invader, which has become an allergen (trigger).
Next time you’re exposed to the allergen, the antibodies recognize it and activate mast cells (the cells that cause an allergic response) throughout your body. The mast cells burst open and release chemicals, such as histamine, that cause allergy symptoms.
Allergy testing can help pinpoint your personal allergic asthma triggers.
Asthma symptoms can either be mild and go away with (and sometimes without) treatment, or worsen into an asthma attack. An asthma attack must be treated with quick-relief medication immediately to keep it from becoming a medical emergency. A severe asthma attack may send you to the hospital. It can even be fatal.
Your asthma may be worsening if:
- Your symptoms are occurring more often and/or are more severe.
- You’re having more trouble breathing.
- You’re using a quick-relief (rescue) asthma inhaler more often than usual.
If your symptoms are worsening, schedule an appointment with your doctor for an evaluation. Get medical help immediatelyor go to the hospital if:
- You are so breathless you have difficulty walking and/or talking.
- You have shortness of breath even though you aren’t actively exercising.
- Your quick-relief asthma medication does not relieve your symptoms.
- Your lips or fingernails are blue.
To help ensure you make the right treatment decisions when asthma symptoms or attacks occur, ask your doctor to help you write an asthma action plan. This should include:
- When to take each of your asthma and/or allergy medications.
- When to increase or decrease medication dosages, based on your symptoms.
- What steps you should take when you’re exposed to one of your triggers.
- When to call the doctor or go to the hospital or emergency room.
Remember, asthma needs to be treated every day with your long-term controller medication—even when you’re not having symptoms or an attack.