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What is Asthma? Signs, Types, Causes, Tests & Prevention

What is Asthma? Signs, Types, Causes, Tests & Prevention

asthmatic child

I have a great friend named Sunny. But this story is not about Sunny. It’s about Sunny’s grandfather. Sunny’s grandfather is now approaching 100 years of age. Sunny tells me how much his grandfather now talks of death with so much desire. He has experienced the longevity that we all long for, made his impact, and has lived to see his grandchildren and great grandchildren, so at this point in life he looks forward to nothing but death. Funny huh? Well, such longevity is rare, but what is more striking to me about the elderly man is that he has lived with asthma from his youth. His last asthma episode was about a month ago and he gathered all his family members in the midst of the episode, to bless them and say his final goodbye, apparently hoping to die, seeing he desires death so much, but fortunately for his family, and unfortunately for him, he survived the last asthma attack and is now back home in good health. A lot of people think of asthma as a diagnosis that means they won’t live a full long life, but there, you have it. My friend’s grandfather is almost 100-years old and has lived with asthma all his life.


Asthma is a long-lasting, inflammatory disease of the lungs that involves recurrent breathing problems. Asthma patients usually have three airway (breathing passage) problems:

  1. Obstruction or blockage of the airway
  2. Inflammation(swelling and redness of the airway)
  3. Hyperresponsiveness, which means the airway easily becomes affected by things in the environment, like dust, pollen, etc.


The exact cause of asthma is not yet known, but studies have shown that a combination of genetic predisposition and environmental exposure to substances that may irritate the airways usually makes a person very likely to have asthma. Some of these substances in the environment that may trigger asthma include:

  1. Indoor allergens e.g house dust mites in beddings, carpets, stuffed furniture, and pet dander
  2. Outdoor allergens, such as pollens and molds
  3. Tobacco smoke
  4. Chemical irritants in the workplace
  5. Air pollution.

Other triggers can include cold air, extreme emotional arousal such as anger or fear, and physical exercise. Even certain medications can trigger asthma, like aspirin and other non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs, and beta-blockers (which are used to treat high blood pressure, heart conditions, and migraine).

Even though anyone may have an asthma attack, it is more common in:

  1. Children and adolescents aged 5 to 17
  2. Females
  3. People living in urban communities
  4. People exposed to tobacco smoke
  5. People with family history of asthma
  6. People with personal medical history of allergies.


The WHO in 2016 estimated that more than 339 million people had asthma globally, with about 417,918 deaths globally. Asthma is a public health problem not just for high-income countries; it occurs in all countries regardless of the level of development. Most asthma-related deaths occur in low- and lower-middle income countries. It is a common disease among children.

In Nigeria, there are about 1.5 million asthma cases per year.


Each individual may experience symptoms differently, however, the common symptoms of asthma include:

  • A long-standing cough, especially at night.
  • Tightness in the chest.
  • Noisy breathing, or wheezing.

People with asthma have acute episodes when the air passages in the lungs get narrower, and breathing becomes more difficult. These problems are caused by oversensitivity of the lungs and airways. 

  • The lungs and airways overreact to certain triggers and become swollen and narrow.
  • Breathing becomes harder and may hurt.
  • There may be coughing.
  • There may be a whistling sound, which is typical of asthma.

But, many people with asthma do not know they have it. Consult your doctor for a diagnosis if you have any of these symptoms. You can speak with a doctor for free on the flexicare HMO plan by initiating a message via the AI health messenger here or via your dashboard on the website.


To diagnose asthma and distinguish it from other lung disorders, doctors use a person’s medical history, physical examination, and laboratory tests, which may include:

  1. Spirometry: A spirometer is a device used by your doctor that assesses lung function, while spirometry is the evaluation of lung function with a spirometer. The test is performed by blowing as hard as possible into a tube connected to a small machine (a spirometer) that measures the amount of air breathed out and in, and also measures the speed with which it is breathed out. This is one of the simplest, most common lung function tests to determine how well the lungs receive, hold, and utilize air
  1. Peak flow monitoring (PFM): A device is used to measure the fastest speed with which a person can blow air out of the lungs. To use a peak flow meter, a person takes a deep breath in and then blows as hard and fast as possible into a mouthpiece.
  1. Chest X-rays: This produces images of internal tissues, bones, and organs onto a film.
  1. Blood tests: Are used to check the amount of carbon dioxide and oxygen in the blood.
  1. Allergy tests: To check the reaction of airways to substances.


Specific treatment for asthma will be determined by your doctor based on:

  • Your age
  • Overall health, and 
  • Medical history
  • Symptoms
  • The extent of the disease
  • Tolerance for specific medications or procedures.

There is no cure for asthma yet. However, it can be controlled with medicines that may help to prevent or reduce symptoms, and by learning how to manage asthma attacks.

The main components of asthma treatment are:

  1. Monitoring lung function with tests like spirometry, peak flow expiratory flow rate, etc, in order to check the severity of asthma, and to monitor the course of treatment, to know if the person is getting better or not.
  2. The use of medication to reverse and prevent the airway swelling of asthma, and to treat the narrowing of airways.
  3. The use of environmental control measures to avoid or remove factors that trigger asthma attacks.
  4. Patient education includes the patient, family members, and the doctor working together.


People with asthma can learn to know and avoid the things that trigger an episode. They can also learn more about medicines and other ways to take care of themselves.

It is very important for a person with asthma to: 

  • Know their triggers and reduce contact with triggers.
  • Understand and take medications as prescribed.
  • Monitor asthma to recognize signs when it is getting worse.
  • Know what to do when asthma gets worse.

Working with a healthcare professional is the best way to take care of asthma.

The more information a person with asthma has, the better asthma can be controlled.

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