Asthma is a condition where the airways of a person’s lungs become inflamed and swollen. Because of this, the airways produce too much mucus and the muscles that control the airways tighten up.
This blocks the normal flow of air into and out of the lungs. Doctors are not sure what exactly causes asthma, though they suspect that the person’s genetic makeup, the sensitivity of their bronchial tubes and the environment they live in contribute to it. The attacks can be triggered by many things, including allergens, medications, pollutants, exercise, lung infections and even cold air.
Asthma can affect people of all ages, but about half of the patients are children under 10. When the patients are children, boys who get asthma outnumber girls. When the patients are adults, women outnumber men. Medical researchers believe about 300 million people globally have asthma, and about 3 million people are diagnosed with asthma every year in the United States. The rates of the disease in the developed world have soared since the 1980s. Scientists are not sure why. As of 2018 asthma is not curable, but its symptoms can be controlled.
It is important to note the early signs of asthma so that they can be treated. A severe case of asthma can disrupt daily life and can even be life threatening. Early indicators include:
A patient with asthma may have a nonproductive cough or a productive cough that brings up either clear or yellow mucus. The mucus is at first hard for the patient to cough up and usually appears only when the attack is waning. The coughing is especially bad at night or very early in the morning and made worse if the patient has a cold, flu or other respiratory ailment. The cough and other symptoms of early asthma may interfere with the patient’s ability to sleep.
Finding it hard to breathe is one of the early indicators that an asthma attack has begun. As the attack continues, the person finds that it is harder and harder to breathe. Because difficulty in breathing is frightening, this symptom is the main reason why most asthma patients go to the emergency room. Once there, doctors can tell how well a patient’s lungs are actually working with a tool called a peak flow meter.
The person may also experience their breathing being shallow and rapid, as well as find it is easier to breathe if they sit up. Their chest may be tight as if there is something heavy sitting on top of it.
During early signs of an asthma attack, patients, especially children, wheeze when they breathe in and out. Some patients produce a whistling sound. Whatever the sounds are, they are produced when the airflow in the bronchial tubes is restricted. It is exactly the way the sound of a whistle is generated. As with the cough, the wheezing is made worse if the patient already has a respiratory condition, even one as benign as a cold. A wheeze is technically known as a sibilant rhonchi.
In some people their chest or neck seems to be sucked in when they try to inhale. This happens when the muscles in the diaphragm can’t work properly because the lack of pressure in the lungs pulls in the soft tissue in the skin. There are several types of chest retractions, including the subcostal retraction, which pulls in the abdomen just beneath the ribs; the substernal retraction, which pulls in the abdomen just beneath the sternum and the tracheal tug, when the skin of the neck is pulled in. Other retractions happen in the neck just above the patient’s clavicle and between the ribs. Retractions mean that the asthma is worsening and a doctor should be seen quickly.