While more than 25 million Americans have asthma, each person’s asthma is different and can vary over a lifetime. This means each treatment plan should be monitored and tweaked over time too.
If you or your loved one has asthma, it’s important to understand its causes/triggers and what treatments will help you manage your symptoms daily.
We spoke with Aaron Schmucker, a family nurse practitioner at Banner Health Clinic in Berthoud, CO, to understand the causes of asthma and what treatment options are available today.
What causes asthma?
Asthma is a chronic lung disease in which your airways become inflamed, narrowed or swollen making it difficult to breathe. For some people, exposure to things like the environment such as allergens can trigger asthma, while for others ongoing health problems can trigger asthma symptoms or make them worse.
“Asthma has many factors that contribute to it,” Schmucker said. “A large percentage of patients have an allergic component to their asthma and that is why there are so many clinics that treat allergies and asthma together. There is also a familial component where asthma tends to run in families, and many other triggers or components that can cause asthma to get worse.”
Mild, moderate and severe asthma: What do these mean?
After your doctor has confirmed your asthma diagnosis, they will “grade” its severity from mild to moderate or severe based upon how often you are having symptoms and how much these symptoms are affecting or limiting how you live your life.
“Severity of asthma, in terms of treatment is important because it determines which medications to use, the strength of those medications and timing of those medications,” Schmucker said.
How is asthma treated?
Treating asthma is a stepped approach, known as stepwise. Upon diagnosis, your doctor will gradually increase (step up) or decrease (step down) your medication, until you consistently are sleeping well at night, active during the day and are avoiding urgent care or emergency room visits.
“Treating asthma is a stepped approach, starting with short acting medications as needed, and stepping up to everyday medications and sometimes subcutaneous injections with severe asthmatics,” Schmucker said.
What treatment options are available?
Treatment options for asthmatics can vary, but generally they fall within these three different components of asthma:
- Other (such as an allergic component)
“Medications like budesonide and other inhaled corticosteroids treat inflammation of the airways,” Schmucker said. “Medications like albuterol and other bronchodilators like it treat bronchoconstriction or airway constriction. Other medications like Xolair are injections and are used to treat IgE or the allergic component that some asthmatics have.”
The right medication can depend on a number of things, but most people with asthma need two kinds of medications: quick relief (or rescue) and long-term control. Immunotherapy, such as allergy shots, can also be helpful if your asthma is triggered or worsened by allergies.
- Quick relief: These medications control the symptoms of an asthma attack. Rescue medications like albuterol work quickly within 2 minutes and last up to 4 hours.
- Long-term control: These medications are taken every day, even when you feel well. They generally work for 12 to 24 hours.
- Immunotherapy: Injecting allergens under the skin can reduce asthma symptoms.
“Some patients only have mild exercise-induced asthma where they only use an albuterol inhaler before exercise,” Schmucker said. “While others are on a high dose steroid and bronchodilator inhalers because they have symptoms that are all day every day.”
Are there any warning signs you should look out for?
While there is no cure for asthma, it’s important to remember that you can keep it under control. If you’re taking your medications but are still experiencing symptoms or frequent asthma attacks, check in with your doctor to adjust your treatment plan.
Schmucker listed some of the warning signs to look out for:
- Using your rescue inhaler greater than 2 times per week
- Waking up more than once a night per month with a cough, wheezing and or shortness of breath.
- Experiencing a cough, wheezing or shortness of breath with exercise.
“Some people make the mistake of thinking there breathing is not “bad enough” to use their inhaler or seek help for their breathing,” Schmucker said. “Tightness in the chest, wheezing and to a certain extent coughing, is not normal with any activity.”
Why is monitoring your asthma important?
“Asthma is important to monitor because over the course of someone’s lifetime it will wax and wane in severity, requiring more or less medication,” Schmucker said. “There are great treatments out there to treat asthma and no asthmatic should settle for a substandard quality of life because of their illness.”
Although asthma is a common disease, it does require a proper medical diagnosis and treatment plan. Don’t wait to get help.
If you are experiencing symptoms of wheezing, coughing or shortness of breath or your asthma treatments are no longer working, schedule an appointment with your primary care provider. To find a specialist near you, visit bannerhealth.com.
You can also download our free Banner Health Asthma Workbook to learn more about asthma and its affects and tips on how to find a treatment plan that works best for you.