American Osteopathic Association

Advancing the distinctive philosophy and practice of osteopathic medicine

Getting a Grip on Asthma

Mother helping son use inhalerTightness in the chest. Wheezing. Coughing. If you are one of the 25 million people in the United States that has asthma, you’re most likely to be very familiar with these symptoms. 

Asthma is a chronic respiratory disease caused by inflammation of the airways

Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine, or DOs, who are trained to look beyond your symptoms by understanding how environmental and lifestyle factors impact your health, say asthma usually develops in childhood, but it can also begin in later years.

When individuals have an asthma attack, several things are happening. The lining of the airways swell, mucus clogs the airways and the muscles around the airways tighten. This tightening of the muscles is known as bronchospasm.

Asthma Attacks

An asthma attack can be a very frightening experience, particularly when airways become so narrow that it is extremely difficult to breathe. These attacks can be moderate to severe, and people need to know the appropriate actions to take depending on the severity of the asthma attack. 

During moderate attacks, asthma sufferers feel tightness in the chest. They may begin to cough and spit up mucus as well as make a wheezing or whistling sound while breathing. At night, they may experience trouble sleeping. At times like this, the best thing for asthmatics to do is take their medication. 

When receiving prescriptions for asthma medication, DOs recommend that patients ask their doctors how long it will take for the medication to take effect. That way, if the symptoms are still the same after the time has expired, people will know it’s a more serious attack and that they should seek medical help.

When experiencing severe asthma attacks, people may become breathless and have trouble speaking. The neck muscles can become tight and the lips as well as the fingernails may turn blue or gray in color. In these cases, individuals need to take their medication immediately and seek emergency care. 

With compliance and monitoring, living with this condition becomes more manageable allowing people to be in control of their asthma instead of the asthma controlling them. 

What Triggers Asthma Attacks? 

Many things can trigger asthma attacks. Some of the more common causes include:

  • Allergens - things that cause allergic reactions like dust mites, pollen, mold or pet dander.

  • Irritants - things that are air-borne such as smoke from tobacco or wood fires as well as fumes and odors from household sprays, perfume or gasoline.

  • Respiratory infections - colds, sore throats, sinus infections and the flu. These are the most common triggers of asthma in children.

  • Exercise - any activity that causes heavier breathing.

  • Weather - cold air, dry wind and sudden temperature changes.

Besides Medication, What Can Help?

Besides taking medication, using a peak flow meter provides an additional method for managing asthma. A peak flow meter measures the amount of air moving out of your lungs and can be most beneficial for asthmatics who take medication daily. 

When using this device, it is recommended that individuals find their personal best, meaning the highest number over a two to three week period when there are no asthma symptoms. Once their personal best is known, that information can be used to monitor whether medication levels are sufficient and the treatment plans are working. ​​​​


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