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What is asthma?

A woman is using an inhaler in her hand.

1. What is asthma actually?

Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disease of the airways. Symptoms are not permanent, but occur in sudden attacks. In an asthma attack, the airways (bronchi or bronchial tubes) react hypersensitively to certain stimuli and become temporarily constricted. The mucous membranes lining the bronchi swell, making it difficult to breathe in and out. In addition, viscous mucus is often produced, which additionally hinders breathing. Doctors refer to this as bronchial hyperreactivity or hyperresponsiveness, which is associated with typical symptoms.

Graphic What is asthma actually?

After an asthma attack, the symptoms typically reduce completely or at least partially. This can happen spontaneously or be triggered by taking special medication.

Further information:
How our respiratory system works

1.1 Asthma, a widespread disease

Asthma can affect people of any age, but occurs predominantly in childhood. The Deutsche Allergie und Asthmabund (German Allergy and Asthma Association) estimates that 8 million people1 in Germany alone suffer from asthma, and puts the global figure at over 330 million2. Even if the mortality rate for asthma is relatively low, if left untreated the disease can have a considerable negative impact on the patient’s quality of life.

Asthma facts

This makes correct diagnosis and individual follow-up therapy with regular monitoring all the more important, helping to avoid asthma attacks or at least significantly reducing their severity.

2. The different types of asthma

The question of why some people get asthma is not yet fully understood. Both hereditary and environmental factors play a role.

Basically, three different types of asthma are distinguished depending on the trigger:

  • allergic asthma, also called extrinsic asthma
  • non-allergic asthma, also called intrinsic or eosinophilic asthma
  • different mixed forms

Allergic asthma is an allergic reaction of the body to inherently harmless substances such as pollen, animal hair, certain foodstuffs, or house dust. These cause the body’s own immune system to go into overdrive and trigger an asthma attack. Occupational asthma, such as baker’s asthma triggered by a flour dust allergy, is another example.

In non-allergic asthma, the asthma tends to be triggered by unspecific stimuli. These include specific medications such as painkillers, solvents, cold air, stress, or infections of the respiratory tract. Physical exertion can also potentially trigger an asthma attack. This is called exercise-induced asthma.

Often there are mixed forms between allergic and non-allergic asthma. Distinguishing between them isn’t always easy. This is because those affected react with asthma symptoms equally to certain allergens as well as to unspecific triggers.

3. Typical asthma symptoms

The typical symptoms of asthma are not always present. Most patients experience symptom-free periods between presenting asthma symptoms or attacks. Only if the course of the illness is severe do asthmatics suffer from shortness of breath and coughing even between two attacks.

Typical asthma symptoms include

  • Shortness of breath
  • Dyspnea
  • Persistent, for the most part dry irritable cough
  • In chronic cases the body also produces viscous mucus
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Laborious exhalation
  • Audible whistling noises when exhaling, also called wheezing
  • Irritability and anxiety, accompanied by high heart rate
  • Lack of oxygen supply, leading fingernails and lips to turn blue
  • Worsening of symptoms at night

Asthma is characterized by rapid relief or even complete disappearance of respiratory distress after the administration of special emergency medications. These are generally offered as sprays for inhalation.

4. Causes of asthma and triggers of asthma attacks

The causes of asthma are not yet fully understood. For sure, a combination of hereditary predisposition and environmental influences plays a major role in the development of the disease.

Depending on whether we are talking about allergic asthma, non-allergic asthma, or a mixture of both, the triggers for an asthma attack can vary enormously.

  • A woman blows her nose into a handkerchief while squinting her eyes.
    Common cause of asthma: a pollen allergy
  • A man in a sporty outfit supports his arms on his bent knees while leaning his upper body forward.
    Cold and stress: nonspecific triggers for asthma exacerbation

Asthma caused by allergies

The cause of allergic asthma is an allergy. This is an overreaction of the immune system to an allergen, such as pollen. In addition, house dust mites, molds, food such as flour or nuts, medicines, or animal hair can cause allergic reactions and provoke an asthma attack if the person is so predisposed.

Unspecific triggers

Non-allergic asthma usually begins in adulthood, often after a respiratory infection. In such cases, the weather and climatic changes such as fog and cold, tobacco smoke, physical exertion, or stress can be triggers for asthma symptoms.

5. Risk factors for asthma – what are they?

The reasons why a person develops asthma are in most cases due to their personal environment and/or genetics. In addition to various triggers at work and at home, excessive hygiene can promote the development of asthma. A statistically significant connection also seems to exist between smoking during pregnancy and the development of asthma in the child. 1.2

What’s more, it has been shown that allergy and asthma sufferers are more common in some families due to genetic predispositions. Also anybody who already suffers from hay fever or neurodermatitis – both considered allergic illnesses – has a clearly increased probability of developing a form of asthma.

A pregnant woman is holding a cigarette between her lips and is about to light it with a lit lighter in her hand.
Smoking during pregnancy increases the risk of asthma in the child

6. How is asthma diagnosed?

Asthma is a very complex disease. Both the severity and the triggers can be very different. Extensive tests and examinations are therefore necessary to enable doctors to classify the disease individually from a medical point of view.

In addition to a detailed discussion of the patient's medical history, the anamnesis, the diagnosis also includes a thorough physical examination. Listening to the lungs and tapping the chest are classic examination methods. With the help of the percussion sound, doctors can determine, for example, whether too much air remains in the lungs.

There are also various lung function tests, chest x-rays, blood tests, and allergy tests.

Common lung function tests for diagnosis and follow-up of asthma:

A woman with gray hair is blowing into a peak flow meter. In the background stands man with a stethoscope in his hand.
Spirometry - the small lung function test
  • Body plethysmography – large lung function test
  • Nitric oxide measurement (FeNO measurement)
  • Spirometry – small lung function test
  • Stress or provocation test
  • Bronchospasmolysis test

Further information about the diagnostic possibilities:
Diagnosis and follow-up

7. Asthma treatment and prognosis

If a form of asthma is diagnosed and treated early, those affected can usually live with it for a long time relatively symptom-free. What is important is that the patient becomes an expert in their illness and in consultation with their doctor manages their asthma as consistently as possible. Because if the asthma goes untreated, permanent damage to the lungs is usually the outcome. In the worst case, uncontrolled asthma attacks can end in death. Good asthma management can prevent this.

7.1 Long-term therapy with cortisone

Although asthma is currently not curable, there are very effective asthma medications. In most cases inhalation of cortisone is used as the basis for long-term therapy. Inhaled cortisone acts locally and inhibits inflammatory processes in the airways. It has also been shown to help prevent asthma attacks.

However, a number of side effects can occur, such as fungal infection in the mouth (mouth sores), irritation of the throat, and hoarseness. Even if the described side effects are not serious in relation to the benefit, taking the lowest possible dose is always advisable and, by avoiding side effects, also promotes patient compliance with the therapy. Active asthma management through FeNO measurement can also help to reduce the drug dose.

A boy is holding an inhaler with a spacer to his mouth.

7.2 Emergency medication in the event of an acute asthma attack

A blister of pills, individual pink pills and an inhaler.

Asthma attacks can suddenly lead to acute dyspnea. There are drugs available for these situations that work quickly and rapidly relieve the alarming symptoms of an attack. Rapid-acting beta-sympathomimetics can help as emergency medication for sudden shortness of breath. These active ingredients do not have a direct effect on the inflammation of the respiratory tract, but trigger a relaxation of the muscles in the bronchial walls via the central nervous system. This causes the bronchial tubes to dilate within just a few minutes. The effect usually lasts several hours.

The combination of long-term treatment of the inflammation with needs-based acute medication enables asthmatics to lead an almost normal life. The correct dosage of medication is crucial and must be constantly monitored and adjusted as part of efficient asthma management. If the asthma is treated adequately, permanent lung damage can usually be avoided.

8. Asthma control and effective asthma management

Asthma control and effective asthma management
Asthma management: Continuous home measurement and regular coordination of the therapy plan with the pneumologist

In order for asthmatics to be able to live as symptom-free as possible, an exact diagnosis, therapy, and patient training are a must. Only this triad leads to efficient asthma management and successful monitoring of the disease.

Regular doctor’s check-ups help to monitor the course of the disease and adapt its treatment where appropriate.

8.1 Actively involving the patient in asthma management

The patient’s active cooperation is essential for optimum asthma management. During check-up appointments at the doctor’s office, doctors can only determine the asthma condition on that day. Daily fluctuations that occur at home can only be recorded by the patient with the help of an asthma diary. But this is only effective if lung function and other measured values that change during the course of the illness are documented regularly. Digital measuring devices and asthma apps make it much easier for asthmatics to record their values.

Ideally, the values are entered daily in a so-called asthma diary, allowing patients to monitor the development of their disease over a long period of time.

This gives doctors a good overview of the status of a patient’s asthma and how their asthma symptoms affect their everyday life, even outside of check-up appointments.

Measurement of values
Logging the daily measured values with the Vivatmo app

8.2 Measuring the FeNO value as part of optimum asthma management

FeNO interpretation table
The FeNO value provides information about the extent of the inflammation of the respiratory

Measurement of the so-called FeNO value has become an established method for determining the acute level of respiratory inflammation quickly and reliably. This involves measuring the concentration of nitric oxide (NO) in the exhaled breath. The FeNO value reflects the degree of inflammation in the lower airways. NO is therefore a reliable biomarker for determining the extent of inflammation in the airways: the higher the FeNO value, the more severe the inflammation. The main advantage of FeNO measurement on a day-to-day basis is that it can detect an aggravation of the inflammation even before noticeable and measurable asthma symptoms occur, so that effective counteraction can be taken early on.

Knowledge of the current FeNO value thus helps doctors to optimize individual drug dosage in the short and long term. Continuous monitoring and treatment of the inflammation with optimally controlled asthma can have a positive influence on the course of the disease.

Vivatmo me is an easy-to-use device for measuring the FeNO value. It is the world’s first FeNO measuring device for use at home and on the road. It determines the FeNO value in the exhaled air in a matter of seconds.

By monitoring the FeNO value closely, meds can be administered in consultation with primary care physicians according to the recognized principle: as much as necessary and as little as possible. Measurement with Vivatmo me helps asthmatics keep a check on how they are doing and plan their daily activities accordingly. Combined with the Vivatmo app, the device is the perfect electronic asthma diary.

More details about asthma therapy and the significance of the FeNO value:
FeNO measurement

8.3 Peak flow measurement

Peak flow measurement is done using the peak flow meter. This measures the rate at which air is exhaled from the lungs. The more inflamed and constricted the bronchial tubes are, the slower the air flows out of the lungs. By keeping a peak-flow log, the patient has an overview of the changes during the course of the day. Compared to FeNO measurement, the peak flow meter mainly measures the effects of the inflammation on the airways and is dependent on the correct use of the device. Peak flow measurement allows an indirect conclusion to be drawn about the inflammatory process.

8.4 A healthy lifestyle helps

Healthy groceries.
Asthma can be prevented with a healthy diet

Additionally, asthmatics can counteract the disease with a healthy lifestyle by taking sufficient exercise and sport, eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, and avoiding excessive stress. Special breathing techniques help asthmatics relax their breathing when they experience shortness of breath. Special breathing exercises help to strengthen the respiratory muscles. Apart from this, it is important to avoid all known triggers for an asthma attack as far as possible.

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1 S2k-Leitlinie zur Diagnostik und Therapie von Patienten mit Asthma (guideline for diagnosis and therapy of patients with asthma)
2 Dezateux C. Stocks J. Dundas I et al. Impaired airway function and wheezing in infancy: the influence of maternal smoking and a genetic predisposition to asthma. Am J Respir Crit Care Med 1999; 159: 403-410