General Breathing Difficulties vs. Asthma: How to Tell the Difference
We have all experienced shortness of breath or difficulty breathing at some point in our lives. Perhaps you were exercising, cleaning dust, exposed to an allergen, or recovering from a sinus infection. Breathing problems are common and can stem from a variety of causes: respiratory and sinus infections, hay fever, even from acid reflux or cardiovascular disease. However, if you experience difficulty breathing regularly, and your shortness of breath is chronic, there may be a deeper underlying condition. You may have asthma, and require immediate medical attention from a trusted pulmonologist like Dr. Mayank Shukla before complications arise.
In the US, over 25 million people have been diagnosed with asthma, with 7 million of asthma patients being children. The dangers of untreated asthma are asthma attacks and related long-term complications, from hospitalizations to permanent lung damage.
Learn more about the warning signs of asthma and how to tell if your general breathing problems could actually be something more serious.
What is Asthma?
Asthma patients suffer from chronic inflammation of the airways, causing the airways to become highly sensitive and swollen. This sensitivity can lead to a dangerous chain reaction when triggered by an allergen or other inhaled irritant.
When the airways become irritated, it triggers a bronchospasm: the surrounding muscles begin to constrict, impeding airflow. This may also exacerbate the swelling, constricting the airways even further. Lung cells may start to produce more mucus, further worsening the patient’s ability to breathe.
This process detailed above results in the tell-tale asthma symptoms:
- Wheezing: This sounds like a whistling sound when breathing, especially when exhaling.
- Chronic coughing: Asthma sufferers may have a chronic cough, which is worst in the early morning or night. The coughing may even inhibit your ability to sleep.
- Chest tightness: Asthma severely constricts the airways, resulting in the feeling of tightening in the chest.
- Shortness of breath: Asthma will result in an intense shortness of breath, especially when exercising or when exposed to airborne allergens such as dust or pollen.
What is an Asthma Attack?
Asthma symptoms can often be mild and resolve on their own. However, if symptoms continue to worsen and intensify, you are experiencing an asthma attack. An asthma attack can last anywhere from a few minutes to several days, and signs must be treated immediately to avoid serious medical consequences. Quick-relief inhalers must be kept on hand in case of an attack.
Common triggers of asthma attacks include:
- Excessive exercise in cold or dry weather
- Environmental triggers like chemical fumes
- Allergens: pet dander, pollen, dust mites
Risk Factors for Asthma
Risk factors for asthma are both genetic and environmental. About half of reported asthma cases are caused by hereditary factors, and half from environmental causes. Your doctor will take a thorough medical history when testing for asthma, as the condition tends to run in families.
Some patients may primarily experience asthma attacks from specific triggers. These include:
- Exercise-induced asthma: Some patients’ asthma symptoms present mainly when exercising, especially during dry or cold weather.
- Allergic asthma: Those suffering from intense allergies are especially prone to asthma symptoms. Anything from household pests, pet dander, dust, and mites could trigger an asthma attack.
- Occupational Asthma: Those working in highly hazardous environments and are exposed to chemical fumes and pollutants are also at high risk of developing asthma symptoms.
While asthma is incurable, it can be managed with the guidance of the right doctor. Testing for an asthma diagnosis may include any or all of the following procedures:
- A thorough medical history
- Breathing tests
- Allergy testing
Again, breathing difficulties are common and caused by various conditions. Knowing the difference is essential, as the consequences of untreated asthma can range anywhere from inconvenient to fatal. In the short term, asthma attacks can result in missed days from work or school, emergency hospital visits, and severely restricted physical activity. In the long-term, untreated asthma can result in irreversible lung damage, such as scarring and the erosion of the surface layer of the lungs.
It is likely that your breathing issues are caused by asthma if:
- Your respiratory problems last more than a few weeks.
- You have had respiratory difficulties since childhood.
- You have hay fever or other intense allergic reactions, or you have a family history of asthma.
- Your breathing difficulties are incited by specific triggers: allergens, cold or dry air, exercise, or pollutants.
While a definitive diagnosis can only be given by a trusted pulmonologist, take this asthma control test before your appointment to get a better understanding of your breathing condition.
Once diagnosed, your doctor will develop a specialized treatment plan to manage your asthma symptoms. This will often include a controller medication for daily management, in conjunction with a rescue medication for asthma attacks.
Controller medications consist of anti-inflammatory drugs and corticosteroids to regulate your symptoms before an attack occurs. Once an attack has been triggered, bronchodilators, or rescue inhalers, are used for immediate relief of asthma symptoms. A bronchodilator should never be used on its own as treatment, without a controller medication first.
Schedule an Asthma Test with Dr. Shukla
If you suffer from chronic breathing difficulties, schedule a consultation with esteemed pulmonologist Dr. Mayank Shukla today for an asthma exam. Dr. Shukla manages the premier pediatric asthma programs in New York City, regularly treating over 5,000 children per year. For the finest in patient care and over 15 years of experience, contact the leading asthma specialist Dr. Shukla at the Asthma Allergy Sleep Center of New York.