Asthma : What is it and how to treat it

One in ten people in Australia has asthma and many of them will suffer from asthma attacks at some point in their lives.

Asthma is a narrowing or inflammation of the airways that lead to your lungs.  Asthma sufferers usually have sensitive airways which react to triggers that can result in an asthma attack and difficulty breathing.

Three main factors

Three main factors cause the airways to narrow:

  • The inside lining of the airways become inflamed
  • Extra mucus and fluid may be produced, which can block up the airways
  • Muscles around the airways squeeze tight. This is called ‘bronchoconstriction’.

Asthma affects people of all ages. Some people get asthma when they are young; others when they are older.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of asthma can be mild or severe. You can have occasional mild attacks, you can have severe symptoms or it can vary between the mild to severe.  How often you have symptoms can also change. When you have asthma, you may:

  • Cough regularly.
  • Wheeze, a whistling noise when you breathe in and out.
  • Feel tightness in your chest.
  • Feel short of breath.
  • Have trouble sleeping because of coughing or having a hard time breathing.
  • Quickly get tired during exercise.

Severe asthma attacks can be life-threatening and need emergency treatment.

How is asthma diagnosed?

A physical examination is the first thing your doctor will do.  If asthma is suspected the following tests can be performed to help in the diagnosis:

  • Spirometry. Doctors use this test to diagnose and monitor asthma. It measures how quickly you can move air in and out of your lungs and how much air you move.
  • An exercise or inhalation challenge. This test measures how your breathing is affected by exercise or after taking a medicine.
  • A chest X-ray, to see if another disease is causing your symptoms.
  • Allergy tests, if your doctor thinks your symptoms may be caused by allergies.

You will need routine checkups with your doctor to keep track of your asthma and decide on treatment.

How is asthma treated?

There are two parts to treating asthma. The goals are to:

  • Control asthma over the long term.  An asthma management plan tells you which medicine to take. It also helps you track your symptoms and know how well the treatment is working. Many people take controller medicine—usually an inhaled corticosteroid—every day. Taking it every day helps to reduce the swelling of the airways and prevent attacks. This is very important so you get the right amount of medicine to help you breathe better.
  • Treat asthma attacks when they occur.  Controlling asthma attacks usually requires the use of a quick-relief medicine, such as albuterol or ventolin, during an attack.
  • Prevention. You can prevent some asthma attacks by avoiding triggers such as irritants in the air (cigarette smoke or dust), things you are allergic to (pollen or pet hair) and certain types of exercise.

If you need to use the quick-relief inhaler more often than usual, talk to your doctor. This may be a sign that your asthma is not controlled and can cause problems.

Asthma attacks can be life-threatening, but you may be able to prevent them if you follow a plan. The doctors at Forrest Road GP medical centre in Armadale can help with diagnosing and treating asthma.  Call 08 9497 1900 or book online to speak to one of our friendly doctors.  All services are bulk billed to current medicare card holders.