Asthma is a common chronic health condition involving the lungs.
It may produce inflammation in the small airways that can result in airway spasm. This often leads to chest tightness, wheezing and/or cough. There are both genetic and environmental factors that influence the development and severity of asthma.
Recognizing the symptoms of asthma is commonly the first challenge in controlling the disease. It is not unusual to mistake the symptoms for another cause such as viral illness or allergies. Of course, asthmatics commonly suffer from these conditions as well. The clue to asthma is duration or persistence of symptoms.
Because asthma is a chronic condition, symptoms often persist over a period of months or years. Severe asthma attacks resulting in wheezing and breathlessness are difficult to ignore and commonly prompt immediate medical attention, which is appropriate.
However, it is not unusual for asthma symptoms to be less severe, making recognition and treatment more difficult. This is especially true in younger children.
Sometimes the only symptom of asthma is a chronic cough, especially at nighttime. Cough exceeding two weeks’ duration or accompanied by more serious symptoms merits medical evaluation.
For some asthma sufferers, symptoms are present only with certain triggers, such as cold air or exercise. Intolerance to exercise – including cough or chest tightness triggered by activity – is a common presentation of a variant of asthma, known as exercise-induced bronchospasm.
Some asthma sufferers experience rare symptoms related to viral respiratory illness, such as the common cold. Symptoms may result in persistence of cough or onset of wheezing accompanying the illness.
Regardless of the symptoms or severity of asthma in any given individual, there are many treatment options to control the disease and to prevent complications. Once the diagnosis of asthma is made, symptom frequency and lung function testing can assist in establishing a treatment plan that is individualized.
For asthma sufferers with persistent symptoms, daily preventive therapy is necessary. Not only does this improve symptom control, but it also reduces airway inflammation that can otherwise lead to complications of asthma. Preventive therapy typically consists of an inhaled corticosteroid medication but may also include medications to control airway spasm and coexisting conditions such as allergies.
Most asthma sufferers benefit from an individualized asthma action plan, which can be developed in collaboration with the health-care team. Those with frequent symptoms can track symptoms as well as lung function at home. The latter is accomplished through use of a simple pocket-sized device known as a peak flow meter. By regularly measuring peak flow, results can be used to predict the onset of an asthma flare, permitting treatment before symptoms become severe.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician practicing at the Ute Mountain Ute Health Center in Towaoc.