Asthma is a chronic lung disease that involves the airways–the small tubes that carry air in and out of the lung when we breathe. Asthma is neither contagious nor curable but it is manageable with a 3-part plan: 1) good medical care, 2) avoidance of triggers, and 3) team support. Most people with asthma can lead a normal, active life. However, if there is any disease whose control "requires a village," asthma is it.
Asthma is a complex disease that varies from individual to individual, both in its symptoms and in its triggering. When a person with asthma comes in contact with a triggering substance or condition, three things happen: 1) constriction of muscle bands around the airways, 2) build-up of mucus inside the airways, and 3) inflammation of the airway lining.
Asthma is a potentially life-threatening disease with a range of symptoms and degrees of severity. Symptoms include coughing, tight chest, shallow breathing, and wheezing. Flare-ups happen when a sensitized person is exposed to indoor or outdoor allergens, or irritants, or individual conditions, known as triggers.
Asthma Diagnosis and Misdiagnosis
A diagnosis of asthma can be made only after a clinical examination that includes taking a history and testing for breath capacity. When asthma is not easily recognized, misdiagnosis can happen. At such times, inappropriate and ineffective treatment such as antibiotics and cough medications may be given.
Some groups of people are particularly difficult to diagnose. Conditions that may be confused with asthma include localized obstruction of airways, laryngeal dysfunction, gastro-esophageal reflux, chronic bronchitis, pulmonary emphysema and cystic fibrosis. Wheezing, a whistling sound made by difficult breathing, can also occur in babies with viral respiratory infection and in children who have swallowed food (i.e., a peanut) without sufficient chewing.
Groups difficult to diagnose
* CHILDREN may show asthma symptoms with viral illness, exercise, or as coughing at night. Recurrent nocturnal cough in an otherwise healthy child should raise awareness of asthma as a probable diagnosis.
* INFANTS may have recurrent wheezing related to acute respiratory infection.
* SMOKERS may suffer from COPD and experience symptoms similar to those associated with asthma, such as cough, sputum production, and wheezing.
* SENIORS may be undiagnosed because their asthma is confused with or hidden by bronchitis, emphysema, and/or interstitial pulmonary fibrosis.
* WORKERS exposed to workplace inhalant chemicals or allergens can develop occupational adult-onset asthma which is misdiagnosed as chronic bronchitis or COPD and is not treated at all or treated inappropriately.
* PEOPLE with SEASONAL ASTHMA have the underlying airway inflammation that defines asthma, but their symptoms occur only at those times of the year that correspond, for example, to a grass, pollen, or ragweed season.
* PEOPLE with COUGH-VARIANT ASTHMA rarely wheeze but have coughing, generally nocturnal, as their main, if not only, symptom.
* PEOPLE with CONTINUING ACUTE RESPIRATORY INFECTIONS (ARI), particularly children, may be undiagnosed because asthma-like ARI symptoms.