Asthma is one of several chronic lung diseases. It usually begins in childhood, although it can also be triggered by exposure to dust or a viral infection in adults. The disease causes inflammation of the airways. Inhaled substances like dust or pollen can become “triggers” for an asthma attack. Asthma can also be triggered by air pollution, excessive cold or even exercise (exercise-induced asthma). The chronic inflammation makes the airways very sensitive, and triggers cause the airways to narrow. In addition, the muscles around the airways become tight, which restricts air flow and causes the characteristic wheezing noise as the patient breathes.
Respiratory problems and a chronic cough are classic symptoms of asthma. Most people with asthma tend to cough at night or early in the morning. The cough may be dry or produce mucus, and varies from mild to severe. Narrowing airways result in wheezing, which is common, especially in an asthma attack. People who have asthma may breathe through the mouth to try and get more air, or breathe more quickly than normal.
Asthma treatment is either focused on maintenance or on acute care management. For maintenance, identifying and avoiding triggers is one of the first steps. Medications for asthma management include bronchodilators, which can help expand the airways, and steroids to treat inflammation. An asthma attack (called an exacerbation) may require more frequent use of the bronchodilator. Severe asthma exacerbations are treated with additional inhaled medications, adrenalin, and oxygen.
A mild exacerbation of asthma can often be handled with an additional dose or two of the prescribed bronchodilator. If the patient doesn't respond, however, the next step should be an urgent care visit. When a patient is too short of breath to talk, or has blue lips or fingernails, immediate emergency care is required. These symptoms indicate a severe exacerbation, and if not treated promptly, they can be life-threatening.
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