Module 1. Understanding Asthma

*Please note: This slide show represents a visual interpretation and is not intended to provide, nor substitute as, medical and/or clinical advice.

What is asthma?

Asthma is a chronic (long lasting) lung condition that causes coughing, wheezing, and breathing problems. It happens when inflammation and changes in the lungs reduce the flow of oxygen into the blood. You get less oxygen to all your cells, which is needed to survive.

Asthma can be a serious condition

Asthma can be a serious condition. Without proper treatment, the lungs become damaged and breathing becomes more difficult. Sudden symptoms can even cause death.

Asthma has no cure, but medication can control symptoms and keep the lungs working as well as possible.

Causes of asthma

Asthma has many possible causes, including:
  • Allergies to substances such as dust, pollen, and mold,
  • Exposure to triggers that irritate the lungs, such as air pollution or tobacco smoke, and
  • Infections that affect the lungs, nose, and throat.

Symptoms of asthma

Asthma symptoms include coughing, wheezing, chest tightness, and shortness of breath.

If you have mild asthma, these symptoms can happen about twice a week.

If you have moderate asthma, these symptoms can happen every day, but not multiple attacks.

If you have severe asthma, these symptoms can happen several times a day, even if you take medication.

How do lungs normally work?

Your lungs contain small tubes called airways. When you breathe, air passes into these tubes. The oxygen enters your bloodstream through tiny sacs at the end of the airways, and your blood vessels carry it through your body.

How asthma affects your lungs

Asthma inflames the airways, so they produce more mucus than normal. Air does not travel through them as well. Over time, they also become stiffer and thicker, not healthy and flexible.

Severe asthma

Mild and moderate asthma usually improve with regular medication. Severe asthma may not improve, even if you take several medications.

Signs of severe asthma

Other signs of severe asthma are:
  • Visiting the ER or hospital,
  • Using a quick-relief medicine more than 2 times per week – other than using it before you exercise, if your doctor told you to do this,
  • Needing a new quick-relief inhaler more than 2 times per year,
  • Needing to take steroid pills by mouth 2 times per year or more, and
  • Having difficulty with everyday activities, such as school, work, or doing things around your home.
If you take high doses of asthma control medicines as directed, avoid things that could trigger an attack, and still have symptoms, you could have severe asthma.

Types of severe asthma

Knowing the cause of severe asthma can be helpful in controlling it. Doctors now know there are at least 4 types of severe asthma:
  • Allergic asthma,
  • Asthma related to having too many of a type of white blood cell called “eosinophils,”
  • Asthma related to having too many of a different type of white blood cell, called “neutrophils,” and
  • Asthma that happens when the muscles in your airways become overdeveloped, called “airway smooth muscle hypertrophy.”

What is an asthma flare?

An asthma flare is when symptoms get worse suddenly. You might start coughing or not get enough air. If so, you need to use your quick-relief medicine. If your symptoms do not get better, you need emergency care. Avoiding this type of flare is an important reason to take controller medication regularly.

Types of asthma medicine: Quick-relief medicines

Medicines that relieve asthma symptoms quickly are called quick-relief or rescue medicines. You breathe them through a handheld inhaler or nebulizer. You might use a spacer with an inhaler or a mask with a nebulizer. A mask or spacer helps you get the right amount of medicine. Use your quick-relief medicines as advised by your doctor when you have asthma symptoms.

Types of asthma medicine: Long-term control medicines

Medicines that control asthma in the long term act on inflammation, swelling, and mucus that cause symptoms and damage. These are called control or maintenance medicines. You take these medicines every day, whether you have symptoms or not. If you have severe asthma, these medicines might not be enough.

Controlling severe asthma: Biologic medicines

Treatment for severe asthma can help. This can include medicines called “biologics.” These medicines act on a specific molecule to treat the cause of asthma.

If you have severe asthma, you need to see an asthma specialist regularly. They can help you find a treatment that targets your specific type of asthma.

Will my severe asthma get worse or go away?

Severe asthma will not go away, although your symptoms might change over time. Having severe asthma can change your airways. The muscles can become thicker and overdeveloped, making it harder to get air through the lungs. You might need treatment called “bronchial thermoplasty” to smooth out the overdeveloped muscles. This helps them work better.

Controlling severe asthma every day

Tell your doctor about any problems, such as not being able to afford your medicine or having new symptoms.

With the right medication and treatment, even people with severe asthma have hope.

Slide Show - Understanding Asthma: Mild, Moderate, and Severe

This slide show explains what asthma is and the common causes, symptoms, medicines, as well as different types of asthma: mild, moderate and severe.

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Animation - Understanding Asthma
1. Animation - Understanding Asthma
Slide Show - Understanding Asthma
2. Slide Show - Understanding Asthma