Understanding the Different Types of Asthma
There are more than 25 million individuals in the U.S. living with asthma, including more than 5 million children. While most asthma cases involve the same common symptoms — shortness of breath, chest tightness, and wheezing — day-to-day life with the condition can vary significantly from one person to another. Not only is there a wide spectrum of the severity and frequency of symptoms, but there are also different types of asthma with distinct causes and triggers. (They are not mutually exclusive, so it’s possible to fulfill the diagnostic criteria for more than one type of asthma.) Here’s what to know about the main types of asthma, including important treatment considerations.
General symptoms of asthma
Asthma is a chronic respiratory condition in which the airways in your lungs become narrow and inflamed, often leading to difficulty breathing. There are several different types of asthma: allergic asthma, non-allergic asthma, nocturnal asthma, occupational asthma, cough-variant asthma, and a related condition called exercise-induced bronchoconstriction. While there is variation among these asthma types with respect to causes, triggers, and treatment options, there are also some similarities, including the core symptoms of asthma such as coughing, wheezing, chest tightness or pain, and shortness of breath.
Some people with asthma experience intermittent flare-ups while others have symptoms the majority of the time, or persistent asthma. Persistent asthma can be categorized further as mild persistent, moderate persistent, or severe persistent depending on the severity of symptoms.
Different types of asthma
Allergic asthma is the most common form of asthma, accounting for about 60% of all asthma cases in the U.S. It occurs when an individual’s immune system interprets substances such as household dust mites, pet dander, or pollen as harmful and releases antibodies that ultimately lead to inflammation in the airways. Allergic asthma frequently involves allergy symptoms like nasal congestion, a runny nose, and itching in the eyes, nose, or ears in addition to core asthma symptoms. There is often a genetic component.
10-33% of all individuals with asthma experience symptoms caused by triggers other than allergies including a history of smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke, respiratory infections, pollution, cold weather, humidity, and exercise. This is referred to as non-allergic asthma. It often develops later in life in comparison to allergic asthma. As part of the diagnosis process, your healthcare provider will rule out allergies as the cause of your asthma symptoms.
60% of all individuals with persistent asthma also experience nocturnal asthma, a type of asthma in which symptoms worsen at night. Those with nocturnal asthma frequently have their sleep interrupted as a result of coughing, wheezing, or chest tightness. There are many factors involved in the development of nocturnal asthma including smoking; dust or other allergens; and other illnesses or health conditions such as the cold, flu, sinusitis, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and sleep apnea. Your circadian rhythm and nightly fluctuations in the hormones epinephrine and histamine are also believed to play a role.
Since your daytime breathing can’t be used to diagnose nocturnal asthma, your doctor may ask you to test your breathing at home or participate in a sleep study to confirm a diagnosis.
Occupational asthma occurs when you are exposed to chemicals in your work environment that affect your respiratory function and breathing such as paint, cleaning products, mold, fungi, or dust. 11 million individuals in the U.S. are exposed to an occupational asthma-linked substance at their workplace. Workers who may have a higher risk for occupational asthma include bakers, farmers, metal and plastics workers, woodworkers, and those who work in manufacturing.
As many as 90% of individuals with asthma experience respiratory symptoms during physical activity — a subcategory of asthma known as exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB). Exposure to airborne irritants including smoke, pollution, and pollen and/or to cold, dry air may contribute to symptoms.
There is much variation in individual experiences of EIB symptoms. Some individuals begin to have difficulty breathing right when they start exercising while others have more noticeable symptoms shortly after they return to a state of rest. Symptoms quickly disappear in some cases but last up to 24 hours in others.
If you have symptoms of exercise-induced bronchoconstriction, it’s important to stay active. Rather than avoiding exercise to prevent an asthma flare-up, speak with your healthcare provider about your asthma treatment plan and look for forms of exercise with an appropriate level of intensity.
In some cases, a dry cough is a symptom of cough-variant asthma. This type of asthma is more common in children than adults. It can be difficult to diagnose since a dry cough is also linked to other health conditions. If your cough wakes you up at night, worsens in cold, dry weather or after exposure to allergens, or occurs after exercise, you may have cough-variant asthma.
30% of all individuals with cough-variant asthma eventually develop classic symptoms of asthma. The goal of treatment for cough-variant asthma is to prevent the condition from progressing into a more severe form. Inhaled corticosteroids, which reduce inflammation and swelling in the airways, are the frontline treatment for cough-variant asthma.
Asthma treatment options
All types of asthma can be managed with a combination of asthma medications, healthy lifestyle habits, and additional preventive measures to avoid triggers. However, given the spectrum of severity of symptoms — and the variety of asthma triggers — there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to treatment. Your doctor will advise you on the most effective treatment plan for your individual needs.
If you have mild asthma, you may only need quick-relief rescue medications to manage acute symptoms. Albuterol (branded options include ProAir® HFA, Proventil® HFA, Ventolin® HFA) and Levalbuterol (Xopenex HFA®) are common quick-relief asthma medications. They may be taken via inhaler or nebulizer.
If you have moderate to severe asthma, you may need long-term maintenance medication in addition to a rescue medication for flare-ups. There are two main types of long-term asthma control medications:
- Inhaled corticosteroids including Flovent® HFA and Qvar Redihaler®
- Combination inhalers that contain both corticosteroids and long-acting beta agonists (LABAs) including fluticasone and salmeterol (Advair Diskus®); budesonide and formoterol (Symbicort®); mometasone and formoterol (Dulera®); and fluticasone and vilanterol (Breo Ellipta®)
If you have allergic asthma, your doctor may also recommend over-the-counter or prescription allergy medications such as oral antihistamines (Claritin®, Allegra®, Zyrtec®), decongestants (Afrin® and Sudafed®), and corticosteroid and cromolyn nasal sprays. While these medications can help you avoid allergy-induced asthma attacks, they are not a substitute for classic asthma medication. If you have nocturnal asthma, your doctor may recommend adjustments to the timing of your dosages to help you experience a better quality of sleep.
To learn more about asthma medication and management, read A Guide to Common Asthma Medications.
Breathe easier with a better pharmacy
Alto Pharmacy is here every step of the way to make it easy to manage your asthma symptoms. Our team of pharmacists is available to answer questions about your asthma medications, and we offer free, same-day delivery and medication management tools like reminders and auto refills in our app.
Reach out any time through in-app secure messaging or by phone at 1-800-874-5881 to learn how Alto can support your asthma treatment plan.
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