How Do I Know If I've Got Asthma?

Reviewed on 1/19/2022
Woman grasping at her chest
Signs you may have asthma include symptoms such as shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, wheezing, chest tightness, and coughing (especially at night or early morning, during exercise, or when laughing).

Asthma is a chronic respiratory disease that causes inflammation and narrowing of the airways, making it difficult to breathe. 

You may have asthma if you have symptoms of asthma such as:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Wheezing 
  • Chest tightness
  • Coughing, especially at night or early morning, during exercise, or when laughing

Asthma symptoms may:

  • Come and go over time 
  • Worsen at in the morning or at night
  • Start or worsen with viral infections, such as a cold
Asthma attacks are episodes when symptoms worsen significantly, necessitating a change in usual treatment. Asthma attacks may come on either gradually or suddenly and can be life-threatening.

What Causes Asthma?

The cause of asthma is unknown, but it usually results from a strong immune system response to a substance in the lungs.

Triggers for asthma symptoms may include: 

  • Allergies (such as pollen, ragweed, dust mites, mold, or animal dander)
  • Irritants in the air (such as smoke, strong odors, chemical fumes) 
  • Exercise
  • Illness, particularly respiratory illness or the flu 
  • Stress
  • Extreme weather conditions
  • Cold air
  • Panic 
  • Strong emotions that can affect normal breathing patterns, such as laughing, crying, or shouting
  • Certain medications
  • Some foods

How Is Asthma Diagnosed?

Asthma is diagnosed with a patient history and a physical exam, which includes the doctor listening to a patient’s breathing and checking for allergic skin conditions

Tests used to help diagnose asthma or rule out other causes for symptoms include: 

  • Pulmonary function tests
    • Spirometry    
    • Bronchoprovocation tests    
    • Peak expiratory flow (PEF)    
    • Fractional exhaled nitric oxide (FeNO) tests    
    • Provocation (trigger) tests
      • Exercise challenge
      • Irritant challenge
      • Methacholine challenge
  • Allergy skin or blood tests, in patients who have a history of allergies

What Is the Treatment for Asthma?

Asthma is usually treated with quick-relief and long-term control medicines. Allergy shots (immunotherapy) may also be helpful.

Quick-relief medications are bronchodilators that expand the airways, and are taken at the first sign of asthma symptoms for immediate relief:

  • Short-acting inhaled beta2-agonists (inhalers)
  • Anticholinergics

Long-term asthma control medications are taken daily to prevent symptoms and asthma attacks and include:

  • Inhaled corticosteroids 
  • Antileukotrienes or leukotriene modifiers 
  • Long-acting inhaled beta2-agonists (usually combined with an inhaled corticosteroid)

In severe cases, when traditional treatments do not work well enough other therapies may be used, such as:

  • Biologics
  • Oral corticosteroids
  • Immunotherapy, useful when asthma is triggered by an allergy
Reviewed on 1/19/2022
Image Source: iStock Images