Asthma: The Cough That Wheezes

By Hasita Patel M.D. and Natalia Darling PA-C
What is Wheezing? Wheezing is a high pitched whistling sound made by your lungs, generally when you are breathing out or exhaling.  Generally, in a healthy lung the branches of the airway are open tubes that allow air to move easily and without restriction in and out of the lungs to deliver oxygen to the body.  If a lung is inflamed or irritated for any reason, it can cause the airways to be more narrow than they usually are, contracting and causing a wheezing noise and making it harder for you to breathe and for the body to receive the oxygen it needs. It is easiest to hear wheezing with a stethoscope, the tool a medical professional uses to listen to your lungs.
What Is Asthma? Asthma is defined as recurrent episodes of wheezing, breathlessness, chest tightness, and nighttime or early morning coughing. One episode of wheezing does not make you an asthmatic but rather it is when wheezing in relation to an allergen, cold, tobacco smoke becomes a pattern or a habit that we start to make the diagnosis of asthma. Asthma is a common, long-term, chronic disease among children that causes your airways to become inflamed, which makes it harder to breathe. There is no cure for asthma but it can be controlled with proper management. The best way to manage asthma is to avoid triggers, use medications to prevent symptoms, and treat asthma attacks if they occur.
How Is Asthma Diagnosed?  Regular checkups that include a thorough medical history and lung exam can help make the diagnosis of asthma. When the diagnosis is in question, checking lung function tests and allergies may be helpful depending on the child’s age.
Wheezing isn’t the only symptom of asthma. People with asthma can also …

  1. cough a lot, especially at night
    2. have breathing problems that are worse after physical activity or during a particular time of year
    3. complain of chest tightness
    4. have colds that last more than 10 days
    5. miss school or work because of trouble doing certain activities

What Is an Asthma Attack?  During an asthma attack, the walls of the airways in your lungs swell and the airways shrink. Less air gets in and out of your lungs. In addition, the mucus that your body produces clogs up the airways even more. The acute attack may include coughing, chest tightness, wheezing, and trouble breathing.
What Causes an Asthma Attack? An asthma attack can occur when you are exposed to things in the environment that cause your airways to become inflamed. Your personal triggers can be very different from those of another person with asthma. Nonetheless, in every case, it is important to avoid your triggers to keep down the inflammation in your airways and reduce your symptoms. Some possible triggers for an asthma attack include tobacco exposure, dust mites, animal dander, mold, pollen, respiratory infections, cold air, cockroach droppings, air pollution, some foods or food additives, and physical activity. A regular appointment with your doctor can help you to learn what triggers your child’ s attacks so that you can avoid the triggers whenever possible.
How Do You Treat Asthma? Not everyone with asthma takes the same medicine. The type of medications you are prescribed depends on the severity of your asthma. Asthma medicines come in two types – quick relief and long-term control. Quick-relief medicines control the symptoms of an acute asthma attack. If you have frequent asthma attacks or use your quick-relief medication often (more than 2 days/week), your asthma may not be well controlled. If you need to use your quick-relief medicines more and more, you should call us to see if you need a long-term medication. Long-term medications help reduce the inflammation in your airways and cause you to have fewer and milder attacks, but they don’t help you if you’re having an acute asthma attack.
People with Asthma should have an Asthma Action Plan. An asthma action plan is a written plan that you develop with your doctor to help control your asthma. The asthma action plan shows your daily treatment to control your asthma long-term, but also outlines which medication and how much to take during an acute asthma attack. The plan explains when to call the doctor or go to the emergency room. If your child has asthma, all of the people who care for him or her should know about the child’s asthma action plan.
How Often Do You Need To See Your Doctor? As discussed above, asthma is a chronic condition. It is still there even if you do not have active symptoms. Asthma can change over time, so it is important to have regular visits with the doctor to keep asthma well controlled.   You can learn more about asthma action plans from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute at
If your child is diagnosed with asthma and doesn’t have an asthma action plan or has not been seen by a medical professional for management of their asthma recently, call our office at 301 279-6750 to schedule an appointment today!