Asthma Mom’s Glossary of Symptom Terms

Bronchospasm – smooth muscle contractions/tightening around the bronchioles (airways), narrowing them and restricting airflow. Bronchospasms are part of an asthma flare.

Cyanosis – blue-tinted skin, starting around the mouth and resulting from lack of oxygen in the blood. Usually starts to occur when oxygen saturation in the blood drops below 90% but may not be noticeable until 75 to 80%. Cyanosis in conjunction with other symptoms of respiratory distress often indicates a life-threatening flare.

Distress – severely labored breathing requiring emergency care. Asthmatics in distress may experience cyanosis, strained neck and face muscles, posturing, retractions, flared nostrils, wheezing, and/or confusion and restlessness.

Dyspnea – shortness of breath, symptom of a major flare. Asthma sufferers sometimes describe a sense of suffocation when they experience this.

Exacerbation – a common medical term meaning a worsening in severity. Also, another term for an asthma flare.

Flare – the preferred term for an asthma attack or episode. Flare symptoms include heavy coughing, dyspnea or shortness of breath, wheezing, and chest tightness.

Hypoxia – inadequate oxygen in some tissues or the whole body, leading to cyanosis. Severe and/or rapid onset hypoxia can result in unconsciousness, coma, and death.

Inflammation – the body’s protective response to injury or harmful substances. Inflammation results in increased blood flow to the site of injury (indicated by swelling and redness), promoting faster healing and flushing out the harmful substance. Problems arise when inflammation occurs unchecked or in places with no injury. People with asthma suffer from chronic inflammation of the lungs.

Pneumonia – a lung infection that occurs when the alveoli, the small sacs at the ends of the bronchioles that release oxygen into the lungs, become inflamed and filled with fluid. While mild to moderate pneumonia is often treated successfully at home, more severe cases often require hospitalization.

Asthma sufferers have an increased risk of developing pneumonia because the excessive mucus produced during a flare can stay in the bronchii and become infected, especially if the flare is under-treated.

In infants and young children, asthma flares are sometimes misdiagnosed as episodes of pneumonia. Multiple emergency room diagnoses of pneumonia will usually make a pediatrician suspect asthma.

Posturing – shoulders hunched-over while coughing or struggling to breathe during a severe asthma flare. Posturing indicates the need for immediate intervention.

Productive cough – a cough that involves mucus, also called a wet cough. An asthma flare usually involves tight, dry, continuous coughing. While a productive cough helps clear the lungs and airways of irritants or mucus, coughing up discolored or bloody mucus indicates a secondary infection like pneumonia.

Rales – the bubbling, whistling, and clicking breath sounds heard through a stethoscope in a pneumonia patient’s lungs. Air moving through airways filled with fluid produces the sounds.

Retractions – during a severe flare, abdominal muscles pull in sharply under the ribcage while struggling to inhale. Retractions indicate the need for immediate intervention.

Wheezing – a whistling sound during exhalation, caused by air forced to move through constricted bronchioles (airways) during a flare. Whistling during inhalation is not considered wheezing. Contrary to popular belief, many asthma sufferers don’t wheeze at all.

This is part of the asthma glossary which I compiled for myself and originally published as BellaOnline’s asthma editor. Because the entire list is so long, I arranged the definitions into mini-glossaries by subject, and I’ll post each section over the next few weeks. When I’m done, you’ll be able to read the entire glossary through the tab above or find the mini-sections through the Asthma Glossaries category in the right sidebar.

I hesitate to use the word comprehensive here. That’s a pretty big word. What I’ll say, instead, is this glossary feels comprehensive to me. As with everything else I write on this blog, I don’t claim expert knowledge so much as I pass along what helped me, in case it might help you.

Related post: Asthma Mom’s Glossary of Lung Terms

15 responses to “Asthma Mom’s Glossary of Symptom Terms”

  1. freadom says:

    Very impressive list. Great idea.

  2. wendy says:

    I’ll second that.! It is chock full of info – particularly helpful if you want to understand what’s happening in the body when you have asthma – or any other respiratory difficulty.

  3. Amy says:

    Hey, many thanks to both of you.

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