The highs and lows of asthma

Asthma is a variable condition, which means that symptoms are different between people, and symptoms in the same person are different during different points in time (i.e., over the course of a year). One of the goals of asthma treatment is to minimize this variability, and therefore have the best possible control of symptoms.

Asthma attacks (exacerbations) are an important part in determining the overall level of asthma control.

There are 3 levels of asthma control:

  • controlled - a person with controlled asthma has not had an episode in the past year
  • partly controlled - having one or more episodes per year is known as partly controlled asthma
  • uncontrolled - asthma is considered uncontrolled if a person has had at least one episode in the past week

Asthma attacks are episodes of progressive increases in one or more of the following symptoms:

  • shortness of breath
  • cough
  • wheezing
  • chest tightness

During an asthma attack, poor lung function can also be reliably measured by peak expiratory flow rates or by other lung measurements at a doctor's office or laboratory. The change in asthma symptoms usually signals the beginning of the attack (even before peak expiratory flow rates change). However, it may be difficult for some people with asthma to notice the increased symptoms.

Asthma attacks can vary from mild to severe. Treatment for the attack will depend on the severity.

During treatment, you will be measured and monitored for the following:

  • peak expiratory flow rates (only in people who are older than 5 years of age)
  • pulse rate (how fast your heart is beating)
  • respiratory rate (how fast you are breathing)
  • pulse oximetry (how much oxygen is in the blood)

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