Living with asthma is different for each individual depending on the type of asthma they have and the severity of their condition. Understanding its causes, symptoms, treatments and potential prevention methods can help.
The Facts About Asthma
Find out how asthma affects your sexual health.
What is asthma?
Asthma is a chronic medical condition that affects the lungs. Its effects range in severity and can be fatal. In 2020, it was estimated that 4,145 people died of asthma in the United States, or about 11 people per day. Nearly all of these deaths were avoidable with the right care and treatment.
The disease causes swelling and inflammation of airways, narrowing them and making it difficult for air to travel from the nose and mouth into the lungs. Asthma also leads to the production of excess mucus in the lungs.
When asthma symptoms flare up, less oxygen is able to make it to the lungs, thereby resulting in:
- Difficulty breathing
- Shortness of breath
- Pain or tightness in the chest
- Coughing, wheezing and hyperventilation
- Difficulty speaking
About 25 million people suffer from asthma each year in the United States, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA).
Types of Asthma
There are two main types of asthma: intermittent and persistent. Asthma is considered intermittent when periods of flare-ups are broken up with times when asthma does not affect a person. Persistent asthma, on the other hand, occurs when asthma symptoms remain nearly constant. The symptoms can range in severity, but they are present most of the time.
Asthma may also be allergic or nonallergic. A person with allergic asthma shows symptoms that typically flare up as a result of allergens such as:
- Pet dander
People with nonallergic asthma can experience symptoms triggered by factors other than allergies, including:
- Weather changes
Finally, the condition can also be categorized based on when it developed. Adult-onset asthma describes the condition when it develops during adulthood, whereas pediatric asthma usually develops before age 5 and may eventually dissipate as a person gets older.
To determine whether you have asthma, your doctor assesses your personal and medical history and gives you a physical exam. In some cases, a pulmonary function test is necessary, along with blood tests and X-rays of your chest and sinuses.
After a thorough examination, your doctor is able to determine whether you have asthma or another condition affecting your breathing, which could include:
- Acid reflux
- Cystic fibrosis
- Nasal polyps
Additionally, other respiratory infections, such as pneumonia, bronchitis and COVID-19, can be mistaken for asthma.
Experts remain unsure of what causes asthma, though certain factors can put you at a higher risk for developing the condition. For example, individuals with allergies are more likely to have asthma. Environmental factors, such as exposure to smoke, toxins, allergens and other fumes, can lead to increased risk for asthma, especially in children and younger people. If someone in your family has asthma, there's a greater chance you will have it, too. Respiratory infections, such as respiratory syncytial virus, can cause damage to children's lungs and result in asthma as well, according to Cleveland Clinic.
Tightness, pain or pressure in the chest, coughing, shortness of breath and wheezing are the main symptoms of asthma. At times, asthma may cause hyperventilation, fatigue or panic. The symptoms you experience vary depending on the particular flare-up or attack.
Depending on the type of asthma, symptoms may occur as a result of outside factors, such as changes in the weather, stress, illness or the presence of allergens.
While there is no surefire way to prevent a flare-up of asthma symptoms or an asthma attack, you can take measures to manage the condition. For many people, the regular use of a preventive inhaler can help reduce symptoms and the likelihood of an asthma attack.
Another key to the puzzle is determining what typically triggers your asthma so you can avoid future complications. Asthma control is essential to maintaining your quality of life and the quality of your sleep, as symptoms like coughing can sometimes worsen at night time.
Substances or situations that bring on asthma symptoms or an asthma attack are considered "triggers." Learning the triggers that exacerbate your asthma can help you avoid flare-ups because you'll be better equipped to avoid these triggers.
Common asthma triggers include:
- Allergens, such as mold, dust mites, pet dander and air pollution
- Fumes and strong chemical smells
- Pests, such as mice and cockroaches
- Tobacco smoke
If you smoke cigarettes or are exposed to secondhand smoke, especially in enclosed spaces, you're at greater risk of developing asthma and experiencing more severe symptoms. Though vaping is sometimes marketed as a healthier alternative to smoking cigarettes, research shows it can still exacerbate asthma symptoms.
Several risk factors make it more likely that you will develop asthma at some point in your life.
Some common risk factors for asthma include:
- Family history. If you have a blood relative who has asthma, especially a close relative such as a parent or sibling, you are more likely to develop the condition yourself.
- Allergies. If you have allergies, particularly conditions such as eczema or atopic dermatitis, you are at greater risk for asthma.
- Being overweight. Research indicates that individuals who are overweight are more likely to have asthma.
- Smoking. If you smoke tobacco, you are at risk for asthma. Smokers are also more likely to experience more severe asthma symptoms.
- Exposure. Being exposed to secondhand smoke and certain chemicals found in some workplaces means you may be more likely to develop asthma.
There is no cure for asthma, but there are treatment options available to help keep your asthma under control. The three main asthma treatments are bronchodilators, anti-inflammatory medicines and biologic therapies. Biologics include any kind of medical therapy derived from living organisms rather than those synthesized in a laboratory from nonliving substances.
Bronchodilators work by relaxing the muscles in your airways so your body can bring air into your lungs more easily. This type of treatment also helps mucus pass through the airways more easily. Bronchodilators are typically used to treat both intermittent and persistent asthma.
Anti-inflammatory medicines help individuals with asthma breathe better by reducing the swelling and amount of mucus production in the airways. This type of treatment is often prescribed as a daily treatment to control and prevent symptoms.
Individuals with severe and persistent asthma may need biologic therapies when other treatments are ineffective. Asthma treatments are typically administered through inhalers or oral medication.
Asthma and sexual health
Considering that exercise and other heavy physical activity can trigger asthma attacks, it's important to know that having sex can trigger a flare-up. While it may not feel like the sexiest accessory to have nearby in the bedroom, keeping your inhaler within reach is a good idea.
If asthma is interfering with your sex life, be sure to talk to your doctor. Together, you can come up with a safety plan to implement during sex so you can enjoy intimacy with your partner without losing your breath.
Managing asthma during sex
Creating an asthma action plan for sex can help ensure you and your partner are on the same page in terms of how to avoid an asthma flare-up in the bedroom and knowing what to do if you begin to struggle to breathe. Make sure your partner knows about your asthma triggers so they can be avoided. For example, keeping the environment clean and free of dust (special bedding can help prevent dust mites) and switching out those fragrant candles for mood lights or LED candles could help.
Sex positions that don't leave you too out of breath or put pressure on your chest are ideal. Ultimately, the most important part of managing your asthma during sex is communication. Let your partner know when you need to slow down or take a break.
Birth control and asthma
Researchers are still studying how asthma interacts with hormones in the body, but a recent study that followed more than 83,000 women found a correlation between the two. The study, published in 2020 in the journal Thorax, observed that women on hormonal contraceptives experienced a reduction in severe asthma exacerbation.
Experts continue to study how asthma symptoms could be impacted by the use of hormonal birth control. While taking a birth control pill may provide some benefits for people with asthma, it's not considered an asthma treatment, and you should consult your doctor to establish a specific treatment plan to keep asthma under control.
Living with asthma
Asthma is a chronic and serious condition that cannot be cured. However, you can get your asthma symptoms under control and keep them at a manageable level so you can maintain your quality of life. With the help of medical treatment, and by identifying and avoiding your asthma triggers, you prevent the likelihood of severe symptoms or an asthma attack. Talk with your doctor if you have trouble breathing and suspect you may be suffering from asthma.
What are the causes of asthma?
The cause of asthma remains unknown. However, there are certain factors that can put you at a higher risk for developing the condition at some point in your life. Individuals with allergies or a family history of the condition are more likely to have asthma, as well as individuals who are exposed to environmental factors such as smoke and toxins.
What are the first signs of asthma?
The first signs of asthma are typically obvious. Symptoms include tightness, pain or pressure in the chest, coughing, shortness of breath and wheezing. Asthma may also cause hyperventilation, fatigue or panic.
How do you diagnose asthma?
Doctors diagnose asthma by assessing an individual's personal and medical history and performing a physical exam. In some cases, a pulmonary function test may be necessary, along with blood tests and X-rays of the chest and sinuses to evaluate for other possible conditions.