While primary care providers can diagnose and treat asthma, consultation with a specialist, such as an allergist or pulmonary or lung specialist, may be necessary from time to time. Asthma symptoms often are mistaken for an infection, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (AAAAI).
Moderate and mild asthma attacks are common for asthma sufferers. During these attacks an asthma sufferer may feel restless, feel her chest tighten, wheeze and/or cough up mucus, according to the American Lung Association. Severe attacks interrupt breathing, causing breathlessness, difficulty talking and eventually cause loss of consciousness, if not treated immediately. Asthma symptoms and how serious they are can vary greatly, but they should always be taken seriously.
Common symptoms of asthma include:
- dry cough, especially at night or as a response to certain "triggers" or allergens
- a feeling of tightness or pressure in your chest
- difficulty breathing
- wheezing-which sounds like a whistling sound-when you exhale
- shortness of breath after exercise
- colds that migrate to your chest or don't go away for 10 days or more
- waking up at night short of breath
Common allergens that may trigger the symptoms above include the following:
Other triggers, known as irritants, can include:
- respiratory infections, such as colds or the flu
- changes in weather or temperature
- cigarette smoke or air pollution
- scented products or strong smells
When to Contact Your Doctor
If you are experiencing one or more of the symptoms associated with asthma and have never received treatment or medication for it, consider making an appointment with a health care professional soon. To accurately diagnose your condition, your health care professional will ask you questions about your symptoms, perform a physical exam and conduct lung function tests.
Asthma symptoms are often associated with other illnesses in older adults, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and sinusitis. COPD is a persistent blockage of the air passages caused by emphysema or chronic bronchitis. Emphysema occurs when the walls of the alveoli-or tiny air sacs -- in the lungs are damaged and coalesce to form inefficient blebs, causing shortness of breath. Chronic bronchitis, which produces a persistent cough not related to a cold or other medical condition, causes inflammation of the airways, which produces mucus and causes muscle spasms.
GERD, which causes the stomach's digestive juices to back up or "reflux" into the esophagus-the passage way for food from the mouth to the stomach, affects about two-thirds of patients with asthma, according to AAAAI. Over time, the esophagus becomes inflamed or permanently damaged. Chronic heartburn, cough, wheezing and hoarseness are some of the symptoms of GERD.
Thirty-five to 65 percent of asthmatics have common sinusitis, and many patients with asthma won't improve unless their sinusitis is treated. Additionally, many only get asthma when their sinusitis is worse. Thus, a complete assessment of asthma always requires a review of the sinuses.
Older adults with asthma are more likely than younger asthma sufferers to have a sensitivity to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) and aspirin and possibly other medications. Taking these medications can trigger an asthma attack.
Tests that measure your airflow are a primary tool in the diagnosis of asthma. Some health care professionals might use a spirometer, which is a machine that measures how much air you blow out each second. Another test used for the same purpose employs a peak flow meter to measure how much air you can breathe out in a fast blast. These tests are simple and painless, but offer revealing information about your airflow. Your health care professional might also measure your airflow before and after treatment.
Other tests may be administered to assess your sensitivity to specific allergens that may be triggering your asthma. A skin prick test and an intradermal test are the most common tests used to identify an allergy. A skin prick test administers a small amount of an allergen scratched or pricked into the surface of the skin (usually in your arm) to gauge how your immune system reacts to it. Since allergies reflect an overreaction of the immune system to substances that usually cause no reaction, a patient having an allergic reaction will develop a small hive right around the area where the skin prick occurred.
An intradermal test administers the allergen into the deeper dermal layer of the skin -- rather than the surface layer. This type of test is 100 times more sensitive and is considered an accurate way of testing for an allergic response. The skin prick test, also called a puncture test, is typically administered first to assess sensitivity and avoid the chances of a severe response.
This content was provided by National Women's Health Resource Center
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