All Asthma Types Are Not the Same

What You Need to Know and Do About Different Asthma Types

Child with asthma rescue inhaler. Joshua Davidson, MD, MPH, Inc.

Did you know that there are several different asthma types? Understanding what type of asthma you have may help you prevent asthma symptoms and take more effective steps when you develop asthma symptoms.

The number of different types of asthma points to its tremendous impact on society:

  • More than 39 million people in the U.S. have been diagnosed with asthma
  • 26 million still carry the diagnosis
  • More than 7 million children are impacted
  • $50 billion in direct medical costs and nearly $4 billion from lost productivity per year
  • More than 10 million lost school days and 14 million work days per year
  • 1000 admissions to hospitals per day and 11 deaths

No matter what type of asthma you have the symptoms are the same:

This can sometimes lead to confusion as some of the treatments can be different. While we call all of them asthma, the underlying pathophysiology can be a little different, leading to different treatment.

All of the following are types of asthma that can impact you:

1. Allergic Asthma

This asthma type accounts for nearly 60% of all asthma. Airway obstruction and typical asthma symptoms that are associated with allergies and triggered by allergens. It is important to be able to identify what triggers your asthma. Examples of common triggers include pollens, molds, dust mites and animal dander.

Normally your immune system's role is to fight off infection, but in allergic asthma, your body overreacts to asthma triggers leading to asthma symptoms. The treatment of allergic asthma will focus on avoidance of asthma triggers or mediating your bodies immune response.

2. Non-Allergic Asthma

About one-third of all asthma sufferers have non-allergic asthma.

This asthma type is caused by viral infections and other irritants. Examples of things that may lead to non-allergic asthma include:

Some research has demonstrated non-allergic asthma to be more severe as measured by the GINA or  the Global Initiative for Asthma score. Some studies have demonstrated a higher prevalence among women, but this has not been universal.  Non-allergic asthmatic patients develop the disease after childhood and have non-allergic conditions such as rhinosinusitis and GERD, and are less likely to respond to inhaled steroids. Many of these patients are also at risk for occupational asthma.

3. Exercise Induced Asthma (EIA)

Exercise-induced asthma (EIA), or more commonly referred to by your asthma care provider as exercise-induced bronchoconstriction, is when your airways narrow and you develop asthma symptoms as a result of exercise.

EIA may worsen your asthma or you may only have asthma symptoms when you exercise.

Typically symptoms may occur 10-15 minutes after a brief period of exercise or 15 minutes into a longer period of exercise such as a run.  It is important to realize that exercise does not cause asthma, but is a trigger that may make you have asthma symptoms.

For EIA and other forms of asthma it is important that you have an asthma action plan and always have your rescue inhaler handy. This can be particularly important for EIA as you may have less frequent attacks. Finally, consider getting a medical ID bracelet or getting an "In Case Of Emergency" contact for your cell phone to let people know you have asthma and who to contact if you are not able to communicate.

4. Occupational Asthma

Did you know that your work environment may put you at risk for asthma? Work-related exposures to things like dust and chemicals are important causes of both new cases and worsening of asthma. Asthma may result from either direct irritation of your lungs or through sensitization to the offending substance.

5. Cough Variant Asthma

While a cough may accompany the usual symptoms associated with asthma, cough alone may be a precursor to or the sole symptom in an asthmatic. When a cough is the only asthma symptom, this is known as a cough variant asthma (CVA).

6. Medication Induced Asthma

Most people don't think about over the counter products worsening their asthma, but this can be very important for a small group of people. But for some asthma patients, over the counter pain medications can be very dangerous.

Aspirin and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (also known as NSAIDs) can worsen asthma or even be fatal. With this type of sensitivity, you need to stay away from drugs like ibuprofen, naproxen and diclofenac as they may trigger asthma attacks if you have asthma.

7. Nocturnal Asthma

If you have wheezing, coughing, chest tightness, or shortness of breath at night, your symptoms may represent worsening of your regular asthma or represent nocturnal asthma as a separate diagnosis. Nearly 75% of asthmatics experience nighttime symptoms like a cough at least once per week and as many as 40% experience nocturnal symptoms on a nightly basis.

8. Glucocorticoids Resistant Asthma

While the glucocorticoids are one of the most potent anti-inflammatory drugs available and are normally very effective in the treatment of asthma, a small group of patients do not respond to these medications and are often labeled as 'steroid resistant.' These are not patients who do not take their medication or do not have access to steroids due to financial or other reasons. These patients just do not respond to the treatment. It is not exactly understood why some patients are resistant to treatment, but theories include lacking the ability for the steroid to appropriately bind to lung cells and a relationship to low vitamin D levels. This form of asthma is very expensive and represents a significant healthcare problem.

9. Other Conditions that Mimic Asthma

All that wheezes is not asthma. Some common and uncommon disease may also cause you to wheeze. The range of diseases here is pretty wide. Post nasal drip and enlarged tonsils are some common conditions that can lead to wheezing in some patients, but the actual cause is not asthma. Likewise, uncommon conditions can also lead to wheezing. While not rare, an enlarged thyroid gland can compress parts of your airways and result in wheezing. You can also be born with vascular rings (blood vessels that surround airways) that put pressure on respiratory structures that lead to shortness of breath and wheezing.


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Dicpinigaitis, Peter V. Accessed January 17, 2016. Chronic Cough Due to Asthma: ACCP Evidence-Based Clinical Practice Guidelines

Sutherland ER. Nocturnal asthma. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2005 Dec;116(6):1179-86.

Martin RJ. UpToDate. Nocturnal asthma. Accessed December 26, 2015.

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