Asthma is a chronic disease that affects the airways, causing the airways to become inflamed and irritated. The specific cause of asthma is unknown, but researchers believe both genetic and environmental factors may play a role in the development of the disease. Asthma symptoms include wheezing when breathing, persistent cough, difficulty breathing, tightness or constriction in the airways and the chest, and excessive production of mucus. Increased mucus production also can contribute to difficulty breathing. Asthma symptoms become worse when the airways are exposed to irritants like mold, dust, pollen, smoke, or pet dander. Changes in temperature, extreme hot or cold temperatures, or strenuous physical activity can also cause asthma flare-ups. Children who have asthma are more prone to respiratory illnesses like colds, flu, and pneumonia. Kids with a family history of the disease and those with allergies or eczema also may be more likely to have asthma.
Asthma diagnosis begins with a personal and family medical history to look for risk factors like a family history of the disease. Dr. Rosenberg asks about the child’s symptoms, and he’ll also listen to the child’s lungs using a stethoscope. The stethoscope can be helpful in identifying the breathing-related wheezing or hissing noise that occurs in most children who have asthma. Sometimes, though, asthma can be present without the characteristic noises. Dr. Rosenberg also may ask the child to perform a simple breathing test. This test uses a device called a spirometer to measure how well the lungs are working and how much air they can hold. During the spirometry test, the child exhales into a special device. The test is painless and takes just a few minutes.
In very mild cases, asthma symptoms may be adequately controlled by avoiding triggers like pollen or dust. When triggers can’t be adequately controlled or when symptoms are more severe, Dr. Rosenberg may prescribe a special inhaler device to deliver breathing medication. Inhalers are small and portable, relying on a small pressurized canister to deliver medication to the airways. In very severe cases, a larger device called a nebulizer may be used to deliver medication. Unlike handheld portable inhalers, nebulizers require electricity. Special mouthpiece attachments are available to make it easier for the child to inhale the medication properly.
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