Even if you’ve never wheezed a day in your life, you could still have asthma. And no symptom should go overlooked, warns Dr. Todd A. Levin of Chattanooga Allergy Clinic.
His office sees hundreds of cases each year, with patients ranging from infant to senior citizen. And while it’s true that asthma is classified as mild, moderate or severe, anyone with the disease should be monitored closely by a medical professional.
“Roughly 1/3 of all asthma deaths come from people with either undiagnosed or mild asthma,” he says.
In simplest terms, asthma is caused by inflammation in the lungs that constricts the airways. But it’s a complicated, often tricky disease because patients can be virtually symptom free then suddenly have an attack (technically called an exacerbation). Usually there is a trigger of some sort, such as pollen or even the common cold.
Approximately 22 million Americans have asthma according to the National Institutes of Health’s Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. How do you know if you’re one of them? The most recognized symptom is wheezing – that telltale whistling sound in the lungs. But there are lesser-known symptoms that should never be ignored:
- Shortness of breath
- Frequent cough (particularly at night or in the morning)
- Feeling tired or weak during exercise
- Chest tightness
- Coughing or wheezing after exercise
WHEN TO SEE A DOCTOR
If you exhibit any of these symptoms on a regular basis, it’s time to see the doctor. “Anyone coughing more than 2 nights per week, wheezing more than 2 days per month or coughing during exercise needs to see a doctor,” says Dr. Levin. “They need to be evaluated or, if already diagnosed, they need to step up their therapy.”
The benefit of being evaluated by an allergist is they can easily perform allergy testing at the same time. Roughly 80 percent of all asthmatics have an allergic trigger, and controlling the allergy can mean a step down in asthma medication. “In a study of patients allergic to dust mites, those treated with dust mite allergy shots were able to take a 50 percent lower dose of their asthma medication,” says Levin.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Chattanooga Allergy Clinic can evaluate you or your child in just one office visit by taking a detailed medical history, performing a pulmonary function test and, of course, allergy testing. A pulmonary function test can be done on anyone over age 5 and it’s an easy, non-invasive procedure that involves breathing into a tube.
WHAT TO DO IF IT’S ASTHMA
- TAKE MEDICATION AS PRESCRIBED:
The gold standard of treatment is inhaled steroids. While over-the-counter inhalers exist they’re not deemed safe by the medical community, warns Levin. Your doctor will prescribe the minimum dosage to control symptoms, but a common problem is for people to stop taking their medication once they feel better. “If you truly have asthma, you’re not going to outgrow it,” says Levin. “It may go into remission, but you’ll always have the underlying disease process.”
- FOLLOW UP REGULARLY WITH YOUR DOCTOR:
Given the unpredictable nature of asthma, it’s vital to be evaluated by a medical professional on a regular basis. “You can have inflammation and not exhibit any symptoms, so the only way to know how you’re responding to treatment is to regularly monitor lung function,” he says. Official guidelines recommend being checked by a medial professional at least two to four times per year.
- BE AWARE OF TRIGGERS:
Triggers come in many forms, and knowing what yours are can help you reduce exposure or be proactive about stepping up treatment. The most common is rhinovirus (the common cold) or other upper respiratory illnesses such as walking pneumonia. Whenever possible your doctor can prescribe antibiotics to get infections under control. Here are a few other common triggers:
- RSV (for children under 3)
- Tobacco smoke
- Weather changes
- Irritants such as strong smells, smoke, exhaust fumes
- Pet Dander
Ultimately the goal is to have absolutely no symptoms and be able to do whatever you want, whenever you want to do it. If you don’t fall into that category, it’s time to make a phone call.