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What is Asthma Really?

Adam Wellikoff, MD – BreatheAmerica Shreveport

Wheezing, coughing, chest tightness, shortness of breath… These are all symptoms of asthma, but what is asthma, really?  Asthma is a syndrome with a constellation of findings characterized by airway inflammation or swelling and an over-active response to various irritants, called “triggers” that can come and go quickly.  Some people have symptoms of asthma but suffer with it thinking there is nothing that can be done.  Other people have already been diagnosed with asthma and are on various treatments but continue to have problems.

It can be hard to tell if someone has asthma.  Having a doctor check how well your lungs work and check for allergies can help you find out if you have asthma.

During a checkup, the doctor will ask if you cough a lot, especially at night, and whether your breathing problems are worse after physical activity or at certain times of year. The doctor will also ask about chest tightness, wheezing, and frequent colds. They will ask whether anyone in your family has or has had asthma, allergies, or other breathing problems, and they will ask questions about your home. The doctor will also ask if you have missed school or work and about any trouble you may have doing certain activities.

The doctor will also do a breathing test, called spirometry, to find out how well your lungs are working. The doctor will use a computer with a mouthpiece to test how much air you can breathe out after taking a very deep breath. The spirometer can measure airflow before and after you use asthma medicine.

There are lots of ways to treat asthma, but the most important part is for you to avoid the things that make your breathing worse.  The most commonly encountered triggers include cigarette and cigar smoke, pets (especially cats), dust mites, cockroaches, mold, and outdoor pollution.  Some of these are easy to avoid, such as smoking but others can be impossible to avoid such as pollution.  If avoiding your triggers does not improve your symptoms, then various medications may be used.  The most common type of medicine used is albuterol that works very quickly to relax the muscles in your airways so that they widen and allow you to breathe easier.  If your symptoms persist, other medications aimed at all the different mechanisms leading to asthma symptoms can be used, including some that target inflammation directly and others that target antibodies in your system that lead to the over-active response to triggers.

Most people are able to experience significant improvement and are able to carry out their lives with very little limitation.  Other people continue to have significant limitations despite being on a good regimen of trigger avoidance and medications.  For these people there is a new form of treatment that is only offered in a few places around the country.  We are fortunate that the pulmonary doctors from LSU Health are able to provide this treatment as an outpatient service.  This new treatment is called bronchial thermoplasty and it involves a procedure that helps reduce the amount of muscle around your airways so they cannot constrict or narrow as much.

Asthma is a very common problem that people from any walk-of-life can experience.  You do not have to suffer needlessly.  If you have asthma or even think you might have asthma it is worth your time to get checked out.  Asthma, if left untreated can cause significant lifestyle limitations and even death.  Please take control of your life, get involved, and take the steps necessary to assure that you lead a long, prosperous, and happy life.   For more information, contact the BreatheAmerica center closest to you or see the CDC website on asthma by clicking here.