Do I have asthma or is it just allergies?
Living in the Northwest, we suffer through months of dark skies and blustery rain, only to look forward to spring, with the weather warming and sun shining. However, with the arrival of spring comes allergies and asthma, which make the joys of the sun shining and the flowers blooming much more difficult to endure for more people than you would imagine.
Asthma is a disease in which the airways in your lungs narrow due to excessive mucus production and contraction of the muscle around the airways. The effect is that it gets more difficult to breathe as you cannot breathe in and out effectively.
There are several so-called triggers of asthma attacks and different people may have different triggers. Some common triggers are dust, stress, exercise, cold, infections, inhaled chemicals, certain medications, cigarette smoke, animal dander and mold. As we enter spring, we also begin to experience many of these triggers, and in some cases are unaware as to why we have issues breathing. Understanding whether you have allergies will also help in identifying if you suffer from asthma, as an allergic mechanism seems to be involved in asthma, and people who have other allergic conditions, such as nasal allergies and eczema, are at an increased risk of developing the disease.
Often I am asked how to identify whether you have asthma. The symptoms of asthma include shortness of breath, wheezing (a whistling sound when you breathe out) and chest tightness. A common symptom which is overlooked is a nightly cough. Even if you have no excessive shortness of breath or chest tightness, you should see your doctor if you have a persistent cough. As the old adage goes: All that wheezes is not asthma and asthma does not always wheeze.
If you have experienced some of the above symptoms or have issues with allergies, see your doctor immediately. Some tests your doctor may request include a lung function test (often done in an office setting where you breathe into a tube and we analyze how well you can breathe out). It is an easy test and one which is extremely helpful in identifying if you are suffering from asthma. Other tests that may be involved include a chest X-ray, blood tests (to rule out other diseases that can often present similarly) and allergy testing (done to determine your individual triggers).
If you are diagnosed with asthma, there are several different mechanisms that are used to treat the disease. All treatments involve opening the airway by preventing the muscle around the airways from contracting or by decreasing mucus production in your airways. Most often, treatments will include both.
In addition to there being different medications you can use to treat your asthma, there are also different delivery mechanisms including metered dose inhalers (the most common and what most people consider the traditional inhaler), alternative inhaler devices that have a powdered form of medication (often called dry powder inhalers), spacers (which are actually attached to metered dose inhalers to help deliver the medicine more effectively) and nebulizers (these turn liquid medicine into fine particles so they can be inhaled).
If you have symptoms that could be asthma, please discuss your symptoms with your doctor. Remember, a fair number of people with asthma are diagnosed as adults. This is not just a childhood disease that everyone grows out of.
If you have asthma, you should also make an appointment to discuss with your doctor the treatment and long-term management of your disease, including what to do if your symptoms get severe, how to prevent severe attacks especially during high allergy seasons and how to decrease your chances of developing symptoms of the disease.