What is Asthma and How Is it Diagnosed and Treated?

Asthma causes swelling and narrowing of the airways that carry air from the nose and mouth to the lungs. Asthma symptoms can include wheezing, tight chest and shortness of breath. With good medical care, the right asthma medications and proper monitoring, you can keep asthma under control.

National Jewish Health asthma expert, Brian Modena, MD, explains how this chronic disease is diagnosed and treated.



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Asthma is inflammation in the small airways of the lungs.

And so the lungs, they have these little tubes that take air out into the peripheral of the lungs.

Asthma is inflammation of those small airways, and it's chronic inflammation, which means that lasts for a while.


Asthma Symptoms

There's times when asthma has no symptoms and people feel good, and then there's times when people have symptoms.

And when those symptoms happen, they're typically shortness of breath, meaning, "I can't get a deep breath," or, "I'm having trouble getting air out."

Coughing, wheezing so that they actually hear themselves breathe.

All of those happening kind of at certain moments, which we call exacerbations.


Asthma Diagnosis

Asthma is diagnosed clinically, and so that means the person comes in and talks to a care provider, and that care provider makes a diagnosis based on typical symptoms.

So we test for asthma using a spirometry.

And what happens is a person comes into the clinic and they breathe into a machine, and they breathe as hard as they can.

And when they do that, the machine and the physicians recognize certain patterns where they're not able to get air out very well.


Asthma Treatment

The treatment of asthma depends a lot on how severe the asthma is.

There's some people that have very mild asthma, and the only really treatment they need is a rescue medication.

And a rescue medication is when you're having acute symptoms or symptoms that are severe at that moment. 

And what happens if you use the rescue medication, it opens up the lungs and you feel better immediately.

When people start using the rescue medication a lot, typically more than one or two times per week, we start thinking about treating the asthma.

The asthma treatment is different.

That is a maintenance medication, and that's the second class of treatment.

That is usually an anti-inflammatory medication called an inhaled corticosteroid.

That inhaled corticosteroid, you breathe it deep into your lungs and it reduces inflammation, actually treats the asthma, so you're using your rescue medication less.

Visit njhealth.org/asthma for tips on how to make your inhaler more effective.

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