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Out of Breath? It Could Be Asthma

More than 26 million people -- one out of every 13 people in the U.S. -- suffer from the recurrent attacks of breathlessness and wheezing asthma can cause. Asthma is the most common chronic disease, and the numbers are growing every year. 

What Causes Asthma?

The exact cause of asthma is not known. Asthma tends to run in families and may be inherited, but environmental factors may also play a key role. Scientists continue to explore what causes asthma, but we do know that these factors play an important role in the development of asthma:

  • Genetics. Asthma tends to runs in families. Genetics plays an important role in causing asthma. If your mom or dad have asthma, then you are more likely to have asthma too.
  • Allergies. Some people are more likely to develop allergies than others, especially if your mom or dad had allergies. Certain allergies are linked to people who get asthma.

  • Respiratory Infections. As the lungs develop in infancy and early childhood, certain respiratory infections have been shown to cause inflammation and damage the lung tissue. The damage that is caused in infancy or early childhood can impact lung function long-term.

  • Environment. Contact with allergens, certain irritants, or exposure to viral infections as an infant or in early childhood when the immune system is developing have been linked to developing asthma. Irritants and air pollution may also play a significant role in adult-onset asthma.


Asthma Symptoms

Asthma symptoms can differ for each person, but here are some of the most common:

  • Wheezing. You may notice a wheezing sound when you breathe. Sometimes this happens only when you exercise or have a cold.

  • Frequent Cough. This may be more common at night. You may or may not cough up mucus.

  • Shortness of Breath. This is the feeling when you can't seem to get enough air into your lungs. It may occur only once in a while, or often.

  • Chest Tightness. Your chest may feel tight, especially during cold weather or exercise. This can also be the first sign of a flare-up.


How is Asthma Diagnosed?

If you experience any of the symptoms above, it is important to see your healthcare provider to determine if you have asthma. You will be asked for some medical history, which should include family members with asthma, smoking, allergies, and exposure to pollutants in your workplace. You will also get a physical exam, which may include breathing tests. Once your healthcare provider makes a diagnosis of asthma, you will be prescribed medication to help control your asthma and an asthma treatment action plan.

An Advanced Approach to Treating Severe Asthma

Bronchial thermoplasty (BT) is an FDA-approved bronchoscopic procedure for the treatment of severe persistent asthma in individuals 18 years and older whose asthma is not well controlled with inhaled corticosteroids and long-acting beta agonists.

BT uses thermal energy to reduce the excessive airway smooth muscle responsible for airway constriction in asthma patients, thereby providing long-lasting control in adults with severe asthma. El Camino Health's Mountain View Hospital performs more BT procedures than any other hospital on the West Coast and is one of only two designated physician training centers in the U.S. In clinical trials, patients receiving this procedure have experienced:

  • a 32 percent reduction in asthma attacks

  • an 84 percent reduction in emergency room visits for respiratory symptoms

  • a 73 percent reduction in hospitalizations for respiratory symptoms

  • a 66 percent reduction in days lost from work/school or other daily activities due to asthma.

Watch this video of Dr. Ganesh Krishna, of Palo Alto Medical Foundation, as he discusses bronchial thermoplasty as a breakthrough asthma treatment.

Learn more about El Camino Health's Interventional Pulmonology Program.

This article first appeared in the April 2014 edition of the HealthPerks newsletter. Updated May 2019.