How Asthma Is Diagnosed

Diagnosis during an asthma attack is usually obvious from the symptoms, especially in someone with a history of asthma. However, with older individuals it is easy for doctors to mistake asthma for conditions such as COPD, heart failure or a heart attack.

In heart failure, fluid may accumulate in the lungs, causing some of the same symptoms as asthma. Between attacks, diagnosing asthma may require pulmonary function tests to measure airway obstruction, an examination of mucus from the nose and lungs, or allergy tests.

Asthma Attack Prevention

People with asthma should avoid asthma triggers whenever possible and take preventive medications. A handheld device called a peak flow meter measures how well air flows out of the lungs. Taking peak flow meter measurements at home is a simple way to detect a decline in lung function before symptoms begin.

A person with asthma determines a "personal best" level of function—the highest flow rate consistently achieved when his or her asthma is under control. An individual's personal best depends on a number of variables, including gender, age and height. When peak flow measurements fall below this personal best level, more aggressive medical treatment is in order.

If you have asthma, it is essential that you have a plan of action in case of an attack. Your asthma plan will involve drug therapy and may include bronchodilators and anti-inflammatory drugs. Bronchodilators reduce the constriction of airway (bronchial) muscles, while anti-inflammatory drugs help to overcome bronchial inflammation or excessive sensitivity to irritants.

You should always keep inhaled medication on hand to treat yourself. If you experience a severe asthma attack, immediately take medication and get to a doctor's office or emergency room without delay. Even without a crisis, if your symptoms persist longer than usual after treatment, it's justified to call or perhaps visit your doctor.

Publication Review By: Peter B. Terry, M.D., M.A.

Published: 05 Aug 2011

Last Modified: 23 Jul 2015