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Asthma is a disorder of the airways that is caused by inflammation often resulting in attacks where patients experience shortness of breath, coughing, tightness in the chest, and wheezing. There are numerous causes and triggers for asthma, and it can occur in people of all ages. The severity of an asthma attack can vary greatly. Many are mild, while others are severe. In some situations, a significant attack can even result in death. Knowing the symptoms and treatments available for asthma can reduce the symptoms and the likelihood of experiencing a severe attack.


Inflammation of the airways causes asthma. During an acute attack, the muscles around the airways constrict, and swelling occurs in the lining of the air passages. As a result, the amount of air that can pass through is significantly reduced. Attacks can be triggered by numerous things including airborne allergens like dust, pet hair, and dander, pollen, mold, or tobacco smoke. They may also be caused by respiratory infections, exercise, changes in the weather, certain foods, chemicals, and stress. Many people who suffer from asthma attacks have a history of allergies like hay fever, while others have no history of allergies.


Asthmatics typically experience symptom-free periods between attacks. Some patients, however, live with chronic shortness of breath that becomes worse during an attack. The length of an attack ranges from minutes to days. When the airways are severely restricted, attacks can be dangerous. General symptoms of asthma include shortness of breath that worsens with physical activity, coughing, wheezing, and pulling in of the skin between the ribs when breathing. These symptoms may come in episodes or be worse at certain times of the day or night. They often worsen with exercise, heartburn, or when breathing cold air. Some symptoms, especially wheezing, tend to begin suddenly. When a bluish color accompanies any of these symptoms in the face or lips, decreased alertness, rapid pulse, sweating, or extreme difficulty breathing, an asthma attack should be treated as an emergency, and sufferers require immediate medical treatment.


Doctors use several methods to diagnose asthma. Often, they perform allergy tests to determine exact allergic triggers of attacks. They also listen to the lungs and perform lung function tests. Chest x-rays are also commonly used to assess the severity of asthma. Asthma treatments vary, but the primary goal is to avoid attacks and control airway constriction as much as possible. Most patients are given medications to prevent attacks as well as medications that provide relief during an attack. Inhalers are commonly prescribed to avoid swelling of the airways. Doctors may also prescribe other steroids or inhalers designed to prevent attacks or ease on-going symptoms. Severe attacks may require oxygen treatments.