Asthma: General Information

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Asthma is a chronic condition of the lungs that affects how you feel and breathe. It’s not contagious-you can’t get asthma from someone else (like a cold), and you can’t pass it on to anyone else. You can have symptoms that occur every day, weekly, every few months, or hardly at all. Some children seem to outgrow it, but most teens with asthma will continue to have symptoms as an adult. Most importantly with the proper treatment, people with asthma can have normal and active lives.

What exactly happens when I have asthma symptoms?

When you have asthma, the airways in your lungs are swollen and inflamed. The airways are the tubes that carry air in and out of your lungs. When you are exposed to something that irritates the airways, they start to narrow, getting smaller with less air able to move in and out. Muscles in and around the swollen airways get tight and more mucous is made. This causes you to have trouble breathing, with chest tightness, coughing, and sometimes “wheezing”, or a whistling sound when you breathe.

What are of the most common symptoms of asthma?

  • Coughing, especially during the night, early morning, when outside in the cold air or while exercising
  • Wheezing that can be heard when you breathe
  • Shortness of breath or trouble breathing
  • Chest tightness or pain which may feel like someone is sitting on your chest or squeezing it

If you have any of these symptoms, talk to your health care provider!

Asthma symptoms can range from mild to severe – from being a little annoying to seriously affecting how you are feeling. When symptoms are severe, asthma can be life threatening.

Will I always have asthma?

Studies have shown that asthma usually does not go away, and that the swelling in your lungs actually stays there even when your asthma is not bothering you. This is important to know because you need to pay attention to how you feel and if your breathing changes.

It’s true that some people only have asthma as a child and never seem to have symptoms again. Others can have symptoms their whole lives. Finally, there are other people who have no symptoms for years and then have it bother them again, many years later. It’s important to remember that asthma is a chronic condition, which means it can keep coming back, unlike a common cold which is temporary. As a teen with asthma, you will probably have it as you grow into adulthood.

Remember: Asthma is very treatable and you should be able to live a normal, healthy life, and be as active as you would like. In fact, some teens forget to mention they have asthma (or a history of asthma) to a new health care provider or their school nurse. It is very important to remember to tell your health care provider or someone else involved in your health about your asthma and what medications you are taking even if you have not had any symptoms for a long time. Learn the name and dosage strength of your asthma medications as many medications come in different strengths- it’s not enough to just identify asthma medications by the color of the inhaler! And, ALWAYS use a spacer device when using your inhaler – it guarantees the right amount of medicine getting into your lungs instead of all over your mouth and throat.

Causes

What causes asthma?

No one knows for sure what causes asthma, but doctors have found that certain things in the environment can irritate a person’s breathing and cause symptoms. Asthma runs in families, and teens who are overweight are more likely to have asthma. Most teens who are diagnosed with asthma have allergies that can aggravate their breathing.

What are triggers?

Triggers are things in the environment that bring on asthma symptoms or “asthma flare-ups” (sometimes called asthma attacks). Some triggers such as pollen will only affect people with asthma during certain seasons and not throughout the year. Others may have symptoms only when they are around a cat, for example.

The following categories and list of “triggers” can cause asthma symptoms for some people.

Allergens (things that you’re sensitive to that cause a type of allergic reaction):

  • Dust mites
  • Animal dander – (which is from skin, fur or feathers of animals)
  • Cockroach and rodent droppings
  • Pollen from trees, grasses, weeds, and flowers
  • Mold and mildew

Irritants (smells and other things that you might inhale (breathe in) through your nose, mouth and into your lungs):

  • Cigarette smoke – both smoke from your own cigarette or someone else’s
  • Strong smells – perfumes, make up, cleaning products, scented candles, fresh paint, room deodorizers, gasoline
  • Chalk dust, wood smoke
  • Air pollutants-smog, diesel fuel and factory emissions

Weather:

  • Cold air
  • Hot temperatures, humidity or “sticky weather”

Exercise:

  • Sports and other physical activities (such as running) that cause sudden and rapid breathing

Viral infections:

  • Colds and flu or other infections of the nose, throat, lungs, etc. that can cause coughing, sore throat, and/or trouble breathing

Dealing with Triggers

The thing about triggers is that one type of trigger (let’s say dust mites) may cause your friend’s asthma symptoms, but another kind of trigger (such as dog dander) may bring on your symptoms. Triggers can vary among people. While taking your medicine and avoiding your triggers is the best way to control asthma and prevent symptoms, you can’t always avoid triggers in the environment.

You can, however, be proactive about certain things such as:

  • If you are allergic to dust, keep your bed and bedroom as dust free as possible. (Carpets, drapes, and stuffed animals collect dust and dust mites – get rid of these items if possible.)
  • Cover your mattress with a protective zippered case to keep dust mites out.
  • Wash your sheets in hot water at least once a week.
  • Vacuum and dust your sleeping and living areas at least once a week.
  • Don’t buy scented health and beauty products or cleaning products with strong scents.
  • Quit if you smoke.
  • Stay in an air conditioned place if the air quality outside is especially bad (on humid/hot days).
  • Get a yearly flu shot.
  • WASH YOUR HANDS often – This is the #1 way to lower your risk of catching colds or the flu.

Try keeping a symptom diary. Jot down what the weather was like, what you were doing, what time of day it was, etc. when you have asthma symptoms.