Many of us take breathing for granted, but when breathing is difficult, we notice. Labored breathing can be caused by a number of things, from viruses to irritants or allergens in the air. Constant exposure can result in health conditions like asthma, which impacts 1 in 13 Americans.

“Asthma is a long-term chronic disease of the airways of the lungs,” says MercyOne pulmonologist Dr. Kendra Hammond. “Typically ’triggers’ start an asthma attack which narrows smaller airways on the outer part of the lungs. When this happens, breathing can become a challenge.”

The most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study estimates 20 million adults and more than 5 million children in the United States are living with asthma, accounting for nearly 6 million physician office visits annually and 1.6 million visits to emergency departments. Children with asthma missed a collective 13.8 million school days nationally in a year.

Asthma doesn’t have a cure, however Dr. Hammond shares it can be managed and controlled. She says asthma attacks usually come with warning signs including:

  • Persistent cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty catching one’s breath
  • Wheezing
  • Chest tightness

Common triggers can include:

  • Strong perfumes or colognes
  • Smoke or secondhand smoke, especially for children
  • Outdoor pollens like ragweed
  • Pet dander
  • Dust 

“A mild asthma attack is one that can be managed at home,” said Dr. Hammond. “Medications can be given using inhalers or steam nebulizers to deliver the medication as a fine spray.”

Common medicines used for treatment include:

  • Bronchodilators to relax muscles of airways to improve airflow
  • Corticosteroids to treat lung inflammation which narrows airways
  • Steroids are delivered by inhaler, nebulizer or IV solution

Following an asthma attack, if breathing doesn’t improve, Dr. Hammond advises seeking medical attention.

“If symptoms don’t improve with your initial medications or get worse, it’s time to seek care,” she said. “Not being able to complete a sentence because you can’t catch your breath is a clear sign to get medical assistance.”

If you have an asthma attack, a health expert can diagnose the disease and develop a plan on how to treat it. “With a plan in place, you know what to do to find relief and avoid complications.”

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