Asthma symptoms include difficulty breathing, coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath. These symptoms can become severe and lead to a life-threatening asthma emergency.
Asthma symptoms are caused by the muscles tightening around the airways, and swelling and mucus production inside the airways. Asthma triggers are substances, conditions or activities that lead to these symptoms.
Doctors do not use one specific test to diagnose asthma. Your doctor first needs to understand your symptoms and eliminate other possible causes of them. In people older than six years, a lung function test that measures airflow in and out of the lungs will help your doctor to diagnose asthma.
A lung function test is not usually possible in children younger than six years, and diagnosing asthma in young children can be difficult. Young children cough or wheeze for many different reasons and in babies, wheezing can be caused by small or floppy airways.
Keeping a record of your asthma symptoms
If you are concerned about breathing difficulties in a family member, keep a diary of symptoms to discuss with your doctor. You could also make a video or audio recording of the wheezing, perhaps using your mobile phone.
The diary may include:
- when the symptoms occur – such as during the day or worse at night
- how bad the symptoms are and how often they happen
- how long the symptoms remain and whether they change with time
- whether the symptoms are worse after exercise, playing, laughing or after an infection (colds or flu)
- whether the symptoms are worse after exposure to animals, pollens or mould.
Methods for diagnosing asthma
If you are an adult and are concerned about your breathing, you should visit your doctor.
You should take your child to the doctor if:
- they have wheezing that happens more than once – with or without an illness
- they have constant coughing, or bouts of coughing become worse at night
- you are concerned about any breathing problems they have.
You can discuss the diary of symptoms with your doctor. Your doctor will ask other questions such as whether there is any family history of asthma, eczema or hay fever. They will also try to understand if there are any other reasons for your symptoms before making a clinical diagnosis of asthma.
In children, the doctor will assess the severity of the asthma based on the pattern and frequency of the symptoms.
Lung function test
A lung function test (spirometry) can help to diagnose asthma in adults and children six years and older. Spirometry measures air flowing in and out of the lungs to give a measure of how well your lungs work. Other conditions, such as having a cold, can also affect lung function.
To do the test, you will blow into a tube as hard as you can for a few seconds. The spirometer measures the amount of air pushed through the tube, as well as other lung measurements. Most adults and children older than six years are able to do this test.
Where to get help
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