Symptoms and treatment of asthma

Asthma is an inflammatory disorder of the respiratory mucous membranes, which affects about 10% of the Finnish population. Medical treatment is based on regularity and understanding the importance of the treatment.

Symptoms and tests

The cause of asthma is linked to genetic and environmental factors. Testing for asthma is usually started if a person is unable to get rid of a flu-related cough even after several courses of antibiotics.

Typical symptoms of asthma are a lingering cough, wheezing, shortness of breath and mucus in the throat. A person may start to find it more difficult to climb the stairs and be more likely to suffer from shortness of breath when jogging. Strong smells, perfumes and cigarette smoke may trigger fits of coughing.

It may be difficult to identify asthma symptoms in children as they may be unable to describe their symptoms. However, a child with asthma may decide to withdraw when playing or sit out of games and may not necessarily want to participate in sports as actively as before. A child may also start to cough when crying or laughing.

The symptoms of asthma may also go unnoticed or adults may fail to react to them. Asthma may also go undiagnosed in elderly people, in particular, who also suffer from other illnesses.

Diagnosing asthma

Asthma is tested with various pulmonary function tests. The most common of these measures the peak expiratory flow (PEF), or the maximum speed of expiration, and PEF readings are measured at home over a two-week period. More precise measurements of pulmonary function are carried out at a hospital. The most common is spirometry. Bronchial hyperresponsiveness measurements can also be carried out, if necessary.

It is more challenging to test for asthma in children, as the tests require cooperation and an understanding of how to blow into the equipment. The first tests that are carried out on children are an exercise stress test, by getting the child to run, and impulse oscillometry, which are carried out by a specialist.

Treating asthma

Asthma is treated with inhaled cortisone-based medication to treat the inflammation, and bronchodilators. The bronchodilator usually has an immediate effect while the cortisone takes effect more slowly. An asthmatic must understand that the cortisone is used to treat the inflammation and that it is important to take this medication, even if the effects are not immediately noticeable.

The cortisone-based medication must be taken regularly, even when there are no symptoms. With seasonal asthma, which only produces symptoms during the pollen season, taking the medication when the symptoms start is sufficient. It is important for an asthmatic to learn to identify phases when asthma symptoms are getting worse and know how to treat them.

It is a good idea for asthmatics to stay active, as physical exercise and fitness affect breathing and oxygen uptake. Smoking should be completely avoided, as it makes asthma symptoms worse and weakens the effects of the asthma medication.

When should you go and see a doctor?

You should go and see a doctor if you are suffering from a lingering cough, shortness of breath or are unable to sleep due to breathing difficulties. It is important to test for and treat asthma because, if left untreated, asthma may cause permanent damage to the lungs, impaired lung function and obstruction of the airways.

Anne Vuorenmaa from the Allergy and Asthma Federation was interviewed for this article.