An Asthma Lexicon: Important Terms You Should Know
Part of being a gallant asthmatic -- like you and me -- is keeping up on our asthma wisdom. That in mind, I've created an asthma lexicon for asthma termonology that often pop up in your questions or whenever you talk to your doctor:
Asthma gene: It is believed asthma is somehow linked to genetics. When people have asthma, something might have happened to "turn on" the genes that may cause the disease. Approximately 10% of Americans have this gene. Many asthma experts believe the age a person is when this gene is "turned on" determines whether one has childhood-onset or adult-onset asthma. Others think that for most people, the gene is "turned on" during the first few months of life, regardless of when one first has asthma symptoms.
Childhood-onset asthma: This is when a person first shows signs of asthma during childhood, or under the age of 18. Most common triggers of this are allergies, respiratory infections, and exercise-induced asthma.
Adult-onset asthma: This is when a person first shows signs of asthma during adulthood. One common trigger of this is gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. You many know that term more commly as simply heartburn or acid reflux.
Acute Asthma: This is shortness of breath due to narrowing of the air passages in your lungs that occurs suddenly. The most common way of treating this is with bronchodilators (known medically as short-acting bronchodilators or SABAs). People sometimes call these medicines "rescue inhalers." (see below).
Chronic asthma: This refers to the underlying inflammation that is always present in the lungs of asthmatics. The degree of this inflammation is what determines the severity of your asthma when exposed to your asthma triggers. The best way of treating this is with asthma controller medicines, which are most commonly inhaled steroids. (see below).
Twitchy airways: This usually occurs in children, who have smaller air passages than adults. It occurs when the air passages are very inflammed and thus extremely sensitive to asthma triggers. Asthmatics with twitchy airways are often referred to as Brittle Asthmatics.
Brittle Asthma: These asthmatics have severely inflammed air passages that are highly sensitive to triggers. Even the simplest exposure can set off a major attack. In most cases today, brittle asthma can be prevented by compliant use of your asthma controller medications. In some instances asthma is so severe that even controller medicines don't help as much as they should. I refer to these asthmatics as hardluck Asthmatics.
Airway remodeling: (Sometimes known as "lung scarring") These is irreversible changes that can occur in your lungs if your asthma is not diagnosed in a timely manner and treated appropriately and agressively. This can make asthma more difficult to control. This is one great reason why it is extremely important to see your doctor regularly and take your asthma medicines exactly as prescribed.
Asthma triggers: These are normally non-threatening things like dust mites, molds, stress and scents that "trigger" asthma symptoms. The immune systems of people wityh asthma may overreact to these typically harmless substances. Airways that have a greater degree of inflammation are more sensitive to these triggers, and may result in "more severe" asthma attacks.
Rescue medicines: Medically known as bronchodilators, these "quick relief" asthma medicines dilate and relaxe the air passages in your lungs. The most common ones used in the U.S. are Ventolin and Xopenex.
Controller medicine: These are typically inhaled steroids, somtimes combined with long-acting bronchodilators (or LABAs), and are also called preventative meds. When taken correctly and as directed, they are meant to prevent one from having an asthma attack, to limit the severity of attacks, and to help one maintain good control of asthma. Some commonly used medicines in this group are Azmacort and Flovent. Advair and Symbicort are examples of combination medicines that contain both a steroid and a LABA. The drug Singulair is an example of a "controller" medicine that is NOT a steroid.
Asthma Action Plan: The asthma guidelines recommend all asthmatics develop a partnership with their doctors to create a plan to help them understand when to take action (use rescue inhaler, call physician or go to the ER). The guidelines note that
"either peak flow monitoring or symptom monitoring, if taught and followed correctly, may be equally effective."
Asthma Symptoms: These are "symptoms" an asthmatic experiences when an asthma attack is impending (early warning signs) and when an attack is ongoing (Asthma attack symptoms).
Peak flow meter: This is a device used to determine "how well your lungs are functioning," according to National Jewish Health. This is recommended as part of the asthma action plan for children and anyone who has difficulty perceiving asthma symptoms.
Controlled Asthma: This is the ultimate goal of all asthma doctors for all their asthmatic patients. 1) Asthma symptoms are minimized. 2) Functional impairments are minimized. This means school and work are rarely missed due to asthma. One should be able to maintain a relatively normal activity level and a normal standard of living. 3) The risk of future asthma attacks is minimized. 4) The goals set forth by you and your physician are met. For most asthmatics, this means you rarely need your rescue medicine, and rarely need to make unscheduled visits to the ER.
If you come across an asthma term you want defined, leave a note in the comments below, or ask a question in our Q&A section.