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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) about Asthma

What is asthma?
What causes asthma?
Can asthma be cured?
Is asthma a psychological or emotional disease?
How is asthma diagnosed?
What does an asthma attack feel like and what happens during an attack?
How can an allergist help me?

What is asthma?
Asthma is a chronic, inflammatory lung disease characterized by recurrent breathing problems.  People with asthma have acute episodes when the air passages in their lungs get narrower, and breathing becomes more difficult. The problem is an oversensitivity of the lungs and airways, which overreact to certain "triggers" and become inflamed and clogged.

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What causes asthma?
The cause of the lung abnormality that is asthma is not yet known.  Through research, scientists have established that the disease is a special type of inflammation of the airway that leads to contraction of airway muscle, mucus production and swelling in the airways.  The airways become overly responsive to environmental changes.  The result is wheezing and coughing.

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Can asthma be cured?
As yet there is no cure for asthma, but asthma can be controlled with proper treatment.  People with asthma can use medicine prescribed by their physician to prevent or relieve their symptoms, and they can learn ways to manage episodes.  They also can learn to identify and avoid the things that trigger an episode.  By educating themselves about medications and other asthma management strategies, most people with asthma can gain control of the disease and live an active life.

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Is asthma a psychological or emotional disease?
No.  Although episodes of asthma can sometimes be brought on by strong emotions, it is important to know that asthma is not the result of emotional factors such as a troubled parent-child relationship.  Years ago, people more commonly believed that asthma was "all in one's head" and therefore not a real illness.  Physicians and other medical scientists today know that this is wrong.

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How is asthma diagnosed?
Asthma is sometimes hard to diagnose because it can resemble other respiratory problems such as emphysema, bronchitis and lower respiratory infections.  For that reason, asthma is underdiagnosed – that is, many people with the disease do not know they have it and therefore are never treated.  Sometimes the only symptom is a chronic cough, especially at night.  Or, coughing or wheezing may occur only with exercise.  Some people mistakenly think they are having recurrent bronchitis, since respiratory infections usually settle in the chest in a person predisposed to asthma.

To diagnose asthma and distinguish it from other lung disorders, physicians rely on a combination of medical history, a thorough physical examination, and certain laboratory tests. These tests include spirometry (using an instrument that measure the air taken into and out of the lungs), peak flow monitoring (another measure of lung function), chest X-rays and sometimes blood and allergy tests.

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What does an asthma attack feel like and what happens during an attack?
An asthma episode feels somewhat like taking deep breaths of very cold air on a winter day.  Breathing becomes harder and may hurt, and there may be coughing.  Breathing may make a wheezing or whistling sound. These problems occur because the airways of the lungs are getting narrower.  The muscles that surround the airways tighten, the inner lining of the airways swells and pushes inward, and the membranes that line the airways secrete extra mucus, which can form plugs that further block the air passages.  The rush of air through the narrowed airways produces the wheezing sounds that are typical of asthma.

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How can an allergist help me?
An allergist is a pediatrician or an internal medicine doctor who has undergone an additional two to three years of training in allergic/immunologic disease. Allergic/immunologic disease includes things like hay fever, asthma, eczema, hives and diseases dealing with compromised immune systems. If you think you might have any of these, see your family doctor. If, after carrying out your doctor's suggestions, you aren't satisfied with your quality of life, consider seeing a specialist. Allergists can use work with you to do more advanced testing or provide different types of treatments and management techniques. Dr. Ellenburg and Dr. Frazier are both board certified pediatric allergists.

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Allergy & Asthma Affiliates / 2121 Highland Avenue / Knoxville, TN 37916 / (865) 525-2640