Understanding Asthma: Diagnosis, Treatment, and Management

Aaron S. Weinberg MD, MPhil
May 4, 2021
4 mins

Asthma is a chronic health condition that affects millions of Americans. In fact, eight percent of American adults live with asthma. Asthma can cause difficulty breathing, feelings of tightness in the chest, wheezing, and coughing. These symptoms can be ongoing, or they can occur or worsen in severity suddenly in “asthma attacks.” Frequent causes of asthma attacks include environmental triggers such as pollen, dust, and mold; certain animals; other allergens; physical exertion; acid reflux; fragrances; cigarettes or vaping; some weather conditions; and infections such as the common cold or flu. 

Asthma is more prevalent in areas with industrial air pollution and in people exposed to secondhand cigarette smoke, but the condition can affect anyone. Although asthma is not preventable or curable, it is treatable and very manageable, especially with the proper care. The first step in managing asthma symptoms is understanding the condition.

What Is Asthma?

In people with asthma, the airways that allow air to flow into the lungs can at times become inflamed and narrow, restricting airflow and causing wheezing, tightness in the chest, trouble breathing, or coughing. Asthma varies from person to person; the condition can range from mild to severe, with some cases requiring hospital visits. And asthma attacks may happen frequently or only occasionally when a person is exposed to certain triggers. 

How Is Asthma Diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider may look for the common symptoms of asthma. They may also look for symptoms that worsen in certain situations.

Your physician will then determine the severity of your asthma and the risks and impairments that may accompany the condition. They may recommend certain breathing tests to determine how well your lungs are functioning. At that point, they’ll be able to discuss asthma treatment options with you.

How Is Asthma Treated?

The best way to manage asthma symptoms and reduce the frequency and severity of asthma attacks is to have a good relationship with your doctor. An established, trusting relationship with a primary care provider can lead to better asthma care and better long-term health outcomes.

Your healthcare provider will work with you to make a plan to manage asthma symptoms. They will likely recommend using an inhaler to control symptoms. The goal of asthma therapy is twofold: to stop active symptoms quickly and to place a patient on maintenance therapy that can stop symptoms from returning or worsening, maintain the patient’s quality of life, and prevent chronic problems including lung dysfunction, hospitalization, and even death. Some plans include:

     • Daily steroid inhalers, which decrease airway inflammation, for long-term maintenance. 

     • Short-term bronchodilator inhalers, which help to widen the airways, for sudden symptom onset.

     • Ensuring proper inhaler use and technique to make sure that the medication is being delivered properly to the lungs.

     • Identifying allergens and other asthma attack triggers and learning how to avoid them. In some cases, the provider may recommend more-extensive allergy testing and treatments. 

     • Learning what to do if symptoms worsen and what to do during an asthma attack.  This may include the addition of other medications such as oral steroids or nebulizer treatments or instructions on when to seek further medical attention.  

If a person is doing very well, the provider may also choose to de-escalate therapy and decrease treatments to the lowest possible level in order to maintain optimum function and well-being. This is done with close follow-up and monitoring.  

People who are pregnant or planning to be should speak with their provider about optimum asthma control — keeping asthma well controlled is important for the health of the mother and baby. Most asthma medications are safe during pregnancy.

Myths and Misconceptions About Asthma

There are plenty of myths about asthma and how to best manage it. We’re busting the myths and sharing truths in honor of World Asthma Day.

     • Asthma is not a psychological or emotional condition. Your feelings will not affect whether you develop asthma. But while feelings don’t affect asthma, the condition can affect a person’s emotional state and sense of well-being. Your healthcare team can work with you to address all the ways that asthma has an impact. 

     • Asthma is not contagious. Asthma is a chronic health condition that develops in an individual. It cannot be passed or spread.

     • People with well-controlled asthma can be physically active and participate in sports. In fact, being physically active is a cornerstone of good health.

     • Asthma can occur in anyone — regardless of age, race, ethnicity, or gender. 

     • Asthma doesn’t “go away.” Even if you’re feeling healthy and breathing well, asthma is still latent. You should continue to avoid irritants and be proactive with medication and care. 

You can take control of managing your asthma with the help of a Carbon Health primary care. Schedule a virtual or in-person appointment via the Carbon Health website or Carbon Health app today.

Carbon Health’s medical content is reviewed and approved by healthcare professionals before it is published, but it is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Talk to your healthcare provider about questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition, and before making changes to your healthcare routine.

Aaron S. Weinberg MD, MPhil

Aaron S. Weinberg, MD, MPhil, is Director of Program Development at Carbon Health and triple board-certified in Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Internal Medicine.


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