Asthma is a chronic condition that interferes with your ability to breathe comfortably and without effort. It can have a significant impact on your daily routines and quality of life and prevent you from enjoying many physical activities including hiking and exercise. Managing your asthma is key to avoiding life-threatening asthma attacks and being able to perform everyday activities.

Read on to learn more about the symptoms, causes, and risk factors of asthma, and about how Lompoc Valley Medical Center can help you manage your symptoms.

What is Asthma?

Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disorder in which the airways that carry air in and out of the lungs become narrow and swollen to cause difficulty with breathing. Asthma cannot be cured but can be managed by avoiding triggers and taking medications that control symptoms. An asthma attack can occur at any time and can interfere greatly with normal everyday activities such as going for a walk, eating at restaurants, and spending time with pets.

normal airway
asthmatic airway
asthmatic airway during an attack

What Are the Symptoms of Asthma?

Asthma symptoms will vary from one person to the next and may occur every day or only during specific activities, such as exercise.

Common symptoms of asthma include:

  • Tightness or pain in the chest
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing (characterized by a whistling sound when breathing out)
  • Coughing
  • Difficulty sleeping caused by coughing, wheezing, or shortness of breath
  • Coughing or wheezing episodes that become worse with the common cold or influenza

An asthma attack is an episode in which asthma symptoms are more severe than usual and become potentially life-threatening. People who suffer from severe asthma are usually more prone to experiencing frequent asthma attacks.

What Are the Causes of Asthma?

At present, the exact cause of asthma is unknown, though researchers suspect asthma occurs due to a combination of environmental and genetic factors. Generally, asthma occurs when the immune system has a strong reaction to a substance in the lungs. This reaction is what drives inflammation in the airways to make breathing more difficult.

Asthma can be triggered by a wide range of activities and substances and affects each person differently. 

Common asthma triggers include:

  • Exercise and physical activity
  • Respiratory infections such as influenza and the common cold
  • Airborne allergens such as pollen, pet dander, and dust mites
  • Air pollutants such as tobacco smoke and wildfire smoke
  • Cold, dry air
  • High humidity or thunderstorms
  • Certain medications including aspirin, ibuprofen, and beta-blockers
  • Acid reflux
  • Strong emotions, such as stress and anxiety
  • Preservatives in processed foods and beverages
  • Fragrances and perfumes

What Are Risk Factors of Asthma?

Anyone can develop asthma. Your risk of developing asthma may be higher if you meet certain risk factors.

Common risk factors of asthma include:

  • Having a family history of asthma
  • Being a young boy, or being a woman
  • Being of African American or Puerto Rican ethnicity
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Having allergies or an allergic condition, such as eczema
  • Exposure to cigarette smoke, especially in the womb
  • Smoking tobacco products
  • Exposure to certain microbes in the environment, especially at a young age
  • Exposure to irritants and substances in the workplace
  • Exposure to pollution, such as exhaust fumes

What Are Potential Complications of Asthma?

People who do not seek treatment for asthma or who fail to manage their symptoms may be at high risk of experiencing complications. 

Potential complications of asthma include:

  • Symptoms that interfere with important activities such as sleep and work
  • Lower productivity at work or school, or frequent sick days as a result of coping with symptoms
  • Visits to the hospital emergency room or hospitalization for severe asthma attacks
  • Permanent narrowing of the bronchial tubes that affect breathing ability
  • Side effects from medications used to control severe asthma, such as weight gain and high blood pressure

How is Asthma Diagnosed?

Asthma can be diagnosed with a physical exam and one or more diagnostic tests that measure lung function. During a physical exam, your doctor will talk to you for about your symptoms and rule out other possible conditions with symptoms similar to asthma, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Your doctor may also listen to your breathing and examine you for allergic skin conditions.

Diagnostic tests for asthma include spirometry and peak expiratory flow (PEF). The spirometry test measures the amount of air you can inhale and exhale following a deep breath, as well as the rate of how fast you can breathe in and out. The PEF test measures the rate at which you can blow air out using maximum effort, and can often detect how well your lungs are working.

Your doctor may also order allergy tests to determine which specific allergens are triggering a response from your immune system.

Can Asthma Be Prevented?

Asthma cannot be prevented. However, there are many steps you can take to control and manage your symptoms so you can reduce your risk of experiencing severe asthma attacks.

  • Inform your doctor as soon as possible if asthma symptoms become worse or if your current medications are failing to treat your symptoms.
  • Stay current with vaccinations—particularly with influenza and pneumonia vaccines—as these illnesses may worsen asthma symptoms and trigger asthma attacks.
  • Identify your asthma triggers and take steps to avoid them.
  • Familiarize yourself with your breathing so you can recognize signs of an impending asthma attack, such as wheezing or coughing.
  • Treat asthma attacks right away to prevent them from turning into severe asthma attacks.
  • Take your asthma medication as prescribed, and do not make changes to your doses or regimen without first consulting with your doctor.
  • Take note of whether you start depending on your quick-relief inhaler, as this may indicate your asthma is not under control and you need your treatment adjusted.
asthma inhalers

How Can Asthma Be Treated?

If you have asthma, your doctor will work with you to develop an individualized treatment plan based on factors including your age, asthma severity level, and your response to different treatments. Most people with asthma are treated with one or more “controller” medications used daily to control symptoms, and one or more “quick-relief” medications to control symptoms immediately during an asthma attack.

Controller medications may include corticosteroids that reduce the body’s inflammatory response, biologic medicines that target specific parts of the body’s response to allergens, and leukotriene modifiers that keep the airways open. Allergy shots may also be used to reduce the body’s response to allergens.

Quick-relief medications may include inhaled short-acting beta-agonists that quickly relax the muscles around the airways to allow for airflow, oral and intravenous corticosteroids to reduce inflammation, and anticholinergic agents that help quickly open the airways.

Where to Find Quality Treatment For Asthma

Lompoc Valley Medical Center is home to a large team of medical providers who are trained and experienced in the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of asthma and other chronic inflammatory conditions. Visit our provider page today to make an appointment today.