More than 600,000 people have asthma in the state of Washington, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, making its prevalence among the highest in the nation and steadily increasing.
Nearly 120,000 of those with asthma are children and more than 5,000 people with asthma are hospitalized each year.
About one in eight women and one in 14 men currently have asthma and between eight percent and 11 percent of children in middle and high school have asthma.
To better understand what asthma is, what causes it and the symptoms, we reached out to PeaceHealth Medical Group Allergy and Immunology Clinic providers, Drs. William Anderson and Sally Newbrough.
What is asthma?
Asthma causes swelling and inflammation in the airways that lead to your lungs. When asthma flares up, the airways tighten and become narrower. This keeps the air from passing through easily and makes it hard for you to breathe. These flare-ups are also called asthma attacks or exacerbations.
Asthma affects people in different ways. Some people have asthma attacks only during allergy season or when they breathe in cold air or when they exercise. Others have many bad attacks that send them to the doctor often.
Even if you have few asthma attacks, you still need to treat your asthma. The swelling and inflammation in your airways can lead to permanent changes in your airways and harm your lungs.
Many people with asthma live active, full lives. Although asthma is a lifelong disease, treatment can help control it and help you stay healthy.
What causes asthma?
Experts don’t know exactly what causes asthma. But there are some things we do know:
▪ Asthma runs in families.
▪ Asthma is much more common in people who have allergies, though not everyone with allergies gets asthma. And not everyone with asthma has allergies.
▪ Pollution may cause asthma or make it worse.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of asthma can be mild or severe. You may have mild attacks now and then, or you may have severe symptoms every day. Or you may have something in between. How often you have symptoms can also change. When you have asthma, you may:
▪ Wheeze, making a loud or soft whistling noise when you breathe in and out.
▪ Cough a lot.
▪ Feel tightness in your chest.
▪ Feel short of breath.
▪ Have trouble sleeping because of coughing or have a hard time breathing.
▪ Tire quickly during exercise.
Your symptoms may be worse at night.
Severe asthma attacks can be life-threatening and need emergency treatment.
How is asthma diagnosed?
Along with a physical exam and asking about your health, your doctor may order lung function tests. These tests include:
▪ Spirometry. Doctors use this test to diagnose and keep track of asthma. It measures how quickly you can move air in and out of your lungs and how much air you move.
▪ Peak expiratory flow, or PEF. This shows how much air you can breathe out when you try your hardest.
▪ An exercise or inhalation challenge. This test measures how your breathing is affected by exercise or after taking a medicine.
▪ A chest X-ray, to see if another disease is causing your symptoms.
▪ Allergy tests, if your doctor thinks your symptoms may be caused by allergies.
You will need routine checkups with your doctor to keep track of your asthma and decide on treatment.
How is it treated?
There are two parts to treating asthma, which are outlined in your asthma action plan. The goals are to:
Control asthma over the long term. Your asthma action plan tells you which medicine to take. It also helps you track your symptoms and know how well the treatment is working. Many people take controller medicine – usually an inhaled corticosteroid – every day. Taking it every day helps to reduce the swelling of the airways and prevent attacks. Your doctor will show you how to use your inhaler correctly. This is very important so you get the right amount of medicine to help you breathe better.
Treat asthma attacks when they occur. Your asthma action plan tells you what to do when you have an asthma attack. It helps you identify triggers that can cause your attacks. You use quick-relief medicine, such as albuterol, during an attack.
If you need to use the quick-relief inhaler more often than usual, talk to your doctor. This may be a sign that your asthma is not controlled and can cause problems.
Sally Newbrough’s name was incorrect in earlier versions of this story.