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Asthmatics may experience coughing that is often worse at night or early in the morning, making sleep difficult. Wheezing is a common symptom, creating a whistling or squeaky sound when breathing. Asthmatics experience tightness in the chest region, as if it is being compressed. Shortness of breath and the feeling of breathlessness are common symptoms. There is difficulty getting enough air in or out of the lungs, especially during exhalation. If airflow to the lungs is inadequate, a lack of sufficient oxygen to the tissues causes the body to breathe faster, in an attempt to get more oxygen. Asthmatics often breathe faster as a result.
Asthmatics often have wheezing during a cold, flu, or other illness. Emotional stress may also result in asthmatic symptoms, such as coughing or wheezing from prolonged crying or laughing. Many indoor and outdoor factors can trigger or initiate typical symptoms of asthma, including allergies, viral respiratory infections,
When allergies stimulate an asthma attack, it is known as allergic asthma. Allergic asthma is stimulated when an affected individual is physically near an allergen or irritant. Research has confirmed that allergies cause the majority of childhood asthma cases. Allergic asthma is the most common form of asthma and tends to run in families. Common allergens that may contribute to allergies and asthmatic reactions include dust mites, dust particles, animal dander, animal hair or bird feathers, mold, plant pollen, and substances found in food. Food products containing peanuts, eggs, dairy products, or seafood can cause asthma attacks in some children with allergies to these foods. Food additives, such as sulfites, can also act as asthma triggers. Synthetic (manmade) products like the latex material used in surgical gloves can also trigger asthma episodes in susceptible individuals. Non-allergic factors that can stimulate or aggravate asthma symptoms include tobacco smoke, chalk dust, talcum powder, car exhaust, and fumes from chemicals such as household cleaners. Auto pollution is a major factor in asthma prevalence.
Exercise is a common trigger for asthma in about 80% of asthmatic individuals. Some asthmatics have exercise-induced symptoms precipitated by brisk activity such as running, especially during cold weather. Pretreatment medications, such as short-acting bronchodilators, quickly widen air passages and thus help prevent the onset of asthma while an asthmatic participates in physical activities. Activities that allow for frequent breaks rather than prolonged endurance are most suitable. Asthma does not have to be a barrier to participating in athletic activities. Many Olympic athletes have exercise-induced asthma that is controlled by medication.
Changes in the weather, such as temperature and humidity variations, can also negatively affect asthma patients. Cold climates may exacerbate asthma because the lungs have to work harder to warm and moisten inhaled air. Asthmatics exercising in such conditions could wear a surgical mask that can trap the warm, moist air exhaled with each breath. Viral infections of the respiratory system that tend to increase in number during winter months may trigger severe asthma attacks. Additionally, unclean and poorly maintained forced-air heating systems release many pollutants that further aggravate asthmatic symptoms.
Every asthma patient is unique. Because there are so many environmental conditions that affect individuals with a genetic predisposition for asthma, it is often difficult to pinpoint the primary cause of the disease in individual cases.
An asthmatic may have any combination of symptoms, with symptoms varying from one asthma attack to another. Symptoms may exhibit a range of severity, from mildly irritating to life-threatening. Symptoms occur with varying frequency from once every few months to every day. Asthma classifications are based on symptom levels in the absence of medication. Mild intermittent asthma is defined as symptoms of wheezing, coughing, or breathing difficulty less than twice a week or less, with night symptoms twice a month or less. Mild persistent asthma is defined as symptoms of wheezing, coughing, or breathing difficulty once a day or less, but more than twice a week. Symptoms occur at night more than twice a month. Moderate persistent asthma is defined as daily symptoms that require daily medication. Symptoms at night occur more than once a week. Symptoms may be severe enough to interfere with normal physical activity. Severe asthma is described as ongoing, persistent symptoms with more serious asthma attacks. Symptoms may occur throughout the day, with night symptoms occurring often. In severe asthma, physical activity is likely to be limited.
All types of asthmatics may have severe asthma attacks. However, with appropriate treatment and avoidance of asthma stimulators, most asthmatics can achieve a general condition of minimal or no symptoms. Asthmatics are encouraged to learn to recognize their own specific asthma stimulators and avoid them, and to recognize their specific pattern of early warning signs that signal the start of an attack. The first signs of a mild or moderate attack may be a slight tightening of the chest, coughing or wheezing, and spitting up mucous. Severe attacks can bring on a feeling of extreme tightening of the neck and chest, making breathing increasingly difficult. Asthmatics may struggle to speak or breathe. In advanced stages of severe attacks, lips and fingernails may take on a grayish or bluish tinge, indicating declining oxygen levels in the blood. Such attacks can be fatal in the absence of prompt medical attention. Fortunately, asthma symptoms are usually reversible with medication.
Author Info: Maria Basile PhD, Thomson Gale, Gale, Detroit, Gale Encyclopedia of Genetic Disorders Part II, 2005
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