About 25 million people in the US have asthma, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. The chronic condition affects the airways that allow air into and out of the lungs, and sometimes it can cause what doctors refer to as an asthma attack (also known as an asthma exacerbation) which happens when the airways become too swollen and mucous-filled for proper airflow.
While there are a few different types of asthma—about eight, to be exact—they all usually fall into one of two categories determining the severity of disease: intermittent and persistent, according to Alfin Vicencio, MD, chief of pediatric pulmonology at Mount Sinai in New York City. The CDC explains that intermittent severity includes those with well-controlled asthma without long-term medication, while those with persistent severity are either on long-term medication or have poorly-controlled asthma without long-term medication.
Dr. Vicencio adds that people with intermittent asthma experience “very sporadic symptoms that can be separated by long periods of time," explaining that someone who has symptoms twice a month likely has an intermittent form of the disease. Persistent asthma, on the other hand, causes symptoms to occur more regularly. “As a rule of thumb, if you’re having symptoms on a regular basis, twice a week or more, that’s one of the defining characteristics for persistent disease,” he explains.
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Anyone with either asthma severity—intermittent or persistent—along with the any type of asthma can experience asthma attacks. Those asthma attacks can be caused by a person's specific asthma triggers, and according to the CDC, and include: dust mites, tobacco smoke, outdoor air pollution, pets, cockroach allergen, mold, smoke from burning grass or wood, and infections (such as the flu.)
While many with asthma are familiar with asthma attacks and their symptoms, it's important for everyone to be able to identify an asthma attack when it's happening. The typical asthma attack symptoms, per the US National Library of Medicine (USNLM), include:
- Breathing problems
- Chest tightness
While asthma attack symptoms are relatively straightforward, and most people know about the symptoms they should be looking out for, there are some lesser-known warning signs that can signal the possible onset of an asthma attack, including fatigue, irritability, having dark bags below the eyes, and feeling nervous, according to the USNLM.
For the most part, asthma is a manageable condition, and doctors work with patients to come up with a specific treatment plan that best suits their needs and lifestyle. According to the CDC, asthma medications fall into one of two groups: long-term control or quick relief, and can be breathed in via an inhaler or taken as a pill. Quick-relief medications help alleviate asthma attack symptoms, while long-term control medications help you have milder or fewer attacks. The CDC emphasizes that it's important to take your long-term control medications even if you aren't currently experiencing symptoms, and it also suggests giving a copy of your medication routine to someone else so they know how to help you if you can't help yourself in the moment.
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