The word "asthma" brings to mind different thoughts for different people. If you suffer from asthma, this word may mean not being able to breathe freely and easily. Or if you are a family member, it may mean that a loved one is uncomfortable, ill, or living a disrupted life where he or she misses school or work. Any one can feel the loss in the quality of life brought about by asthma.
Some people think of asthma as really just a "breathing problem"--it may at times cause people to see a doctor or go to the emergency room, but the symptoms usually aren't too bad. However, to physicians who treat asthma, asthma is a serious medical condition--one in which their patients have trouble breathing and that must be relieved through their patients' avoidance of the causes of their asthma or by their patients taking specific medication.
But is it an "allergic" condition? Not always, but in most patients many of the triggers for their asthma are allergic in nature. The most common include dust mites, cockroaches, molds, and pollens such as ragweed, grass and trees. Numerous scientific studies have shown that avoidance of specific allergens in patients with asthma who have been previously sensitized will result in improved asthma symptoms and decreased medication requirements.
How Is Asthma Recognized?
Medically, asthma is a name assigned to a group of symptoms that typically include shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing, and chest tightness. Symptoms can occur in various combinations (one, several, or all) and may range from mild to severe. Symptoms are usually intermittent, perhaps happening only on rare occasions but may occur seasonally or monthly, weekly, or even daily. In the most severe cases, symptoms are present continuously.
Asthmatic symptoms are usually quite variable; someone with asthma may go for periods of time without symptoms, and then suddenly have severe episodes for days at a time. The most common symptom recognized by both physicians and patients is wheezing. Wheezing is a whistling or rumbling sound that comes from the chest expiration. It may be very loud or barely audible.
The wheezing sound occurs when the bronchial tube -- through which we breath -- goes into spasm and narrows, causing air coming out of the lungs to set up vibrations as the air tries to squeeze through narrower airways. This narrowing of the bronchial tubes also prevents air from moving in and out of the lungs easily, which gives the feeling of shortness of breath (called dyspnea by physicians). Mucus, which normally forms in the bronchial tubes, cannot easily get cleared from the spastic and constricted bronchial tubes. The mucus accumulates and sets off a cough reflex as the body attempts to clear the extra mucus out of airways. Spasm by the bronchial tubes also triggers coughing. Unfortunately, each of these underlying changes eventually contributes to and aggravates other changes and symptoms.