Chronic asthma is a condition that involves persistent inflammation and irritation of the airways. When external triggers such as cold air or allergens are present, asthma sufferers experience acute attacks of wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath. Asthma attacks can last anywhere from a few minutes to over 24 hours, and mild breathing difficulties can linger in between episodes. Chronic asthma is most often an inherited disorder that tends to clear up in late childhood or adolescence, though many people have lifelong symptoms. Doctors can prescribe medications to expand the airways during an acute attack to help prevent future episodes.
Lungs and air passages afflicted with chronic asthma are always irritated to some degree. Some people with the condition cannot take deep breaths due to limited lung capacity and mucous buildup. During an attack, inflammation worsens and the airways constrict severely. The body's natural response to inflammation is increased mucous production, which further obstructs air passages. Sufferers experience chest pain and tightness, wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath. Pain and respiratory problems can lead to a rapid pulse and a loss of consciousness in the most serious cases.
People who have a familial history of chronic asthma and allergies are likely to inherit the condition. Severe respiratory infections in childhood, years of exposure to air pollution and obesity are also significant risk factors for developing asthma. For most people with the condition, airborne allergens or other environmental factors cause acute attacks. Allergens such as pet dander, mold, smoke and pollen enter the airways and trigger inflammation, throat restriction and mucous production. Asthma worsens in some people when they exercise or venture outside during cold weather.
A doctor can determine the severity of a patient's chronic asthma by performing a series of diagnostic tests. The physician listens to the patient's chest with a stethoscope and instructs him to blow into a device called a peak flow meter to measure lung capacity. Chest x-rays are often conducted so that the doctor can better evaluate the seriousness of inflammation and airway restriction.
There are many short- and long-term treatment options available for people who suffer from frequent asthma attacks. Patients are often given prescription or over-the-counter inhalers called bronchodilators. Inhalers contain concentrated amounts of corticosteroids that can loosen muscles in the throat and reduce inflammation during an acute attack. Patients who are prone to frequent attacks may be prescribed oral anti-inflammatory drugs or specialized inhalers to be used on a daily basis. In addition, doctors can provide information about avoiding certain environmental triggers and limiting strenuous exercise to help prevent chronic asthma symptoms.