If you think you or someone you care for might have asthma, it’s important to see your doctor as soon as possible. Going through the process of getting a diagnosis will tell you whether your breathing symptoms are being caused by asthma. A diagnosis will help you to manage your asthma and understand how to prevent symptoms like wheezing, chest tightness, breathlessness and coughing. It will also help you learn how to treat them.
At your appointment your doctor will ask you questions about your and your family’s medical history. They may also ask for details about your symptoms such as:
- when, where, and what makes your symptoms worse
- how often and how serious your symptoms have been.
If you have eczema or hay fever, or have close relatives with allergies or asthma, a diagnosis is more likely. Asthma is also more likely to be diagnosed if your symptoms:
- keep coming back, or happen at the same time each year
- are worse at night or in the early morning
- are clearly triggered by exercise, allergies or infections, or have a seasonal pattern
- improve quickly with reliever medication.
If you have been told that you had asthma symptoms as a child or get symptoms every now and then (for example when exercising or during spring) it’s important to visit your doctor to find out if it’s asthma.
There is no single test for asthma. Your doctor will use the information about your symptoms and health to work out whether you need to have:
- spirometry (breathing or lung function) test –this is suitable for most adults and kids aged six and older
- allergy testing
- treatment trial (this means starting asthma treatment and seeing if it’s effective).
Does My Child Have Asthma?
Finding out that your child has asthma can be a confusing and stressful time for parents.
An asthma diagnosis for your child will depend on their age and their history of symptoms. It is often hard to tell whether a child has asthma because they have smaller airways for breathing and they tend to get a lot of colds. Kids can also find it difficult to explain to us what’s happening to their breathing.
A diagnosis of asthma is rarely given to kids under five years old because:
- They often find breathing tests like spirometry hard to do.
- There are many other reasons for wheezing and coughing in young kids.
However, kids older than five (and even adults) can find spirometry tests too demanding. Your doctor can use other ways to help with finding out if it’s asthma. This can include reviewing your history of symptoms or a treatment trial.
- How often and when do they have symptoms?
- How many days of the week does your child get symptoms? How many times in a day?
- What helped their symptoms?
- How long did the symptoms last and did they change over time?
- Do you have a family history of asthma or allergies?
It may also help to record a video or audio of your child’s breathing to show your doctor.
Based on their findings, a doctor may prescribe an asthma medicine for a short time. This is known as a treatment trial.
Then they will ask to see your child again after they have used the asthma medicine at home. At this next visit the doctor will see if there has been any change to your child’s symptoms since using the asthma medicine.
Sometimes, your doctor may refer your child to a special children’s doctor for a second opinion.
WHAT IS SPIROMETRY?
Spirometry is one type of lung function test. It helps you and your doctor find out what is happening in your lungs. It measures the amount of air you can breathe in and out of your lungs, and how hard and fast you can breathe out. Spirometry is a safe, simple and painless test that can help you understand if asthma is affecting your breathing.
WHAT HAPPENS DURING A SPIROMETRY TEST?
The test is done in 2 stages:
1. Before reliever medicine
Before you do the test, you will be told how to do the test correctly. If you’re unsure, let them know and ask lots of questions.
- They will ask you to breathe out as hard and fast as you can. This test takes all your breathing effort.
- You may also be asked to put a special peg on your nose to keep your nose closed so you are breathing out of your mouth, not your nose.
- You will need to repeat the test at least three times to get the best result (Sometimes this may not be possible in one visit, because the test can be quite tiring.).
- The test is not painful – but it is demanding! You have to put in your best effort to breathe out as hard as you can!
2. After reliever medicine
You will need to do the spirometry test again after having some puffs of a ‘reliever’ medicine (usually a blue or grey coloured puffer). The test will be taken again about 10 minutes after you’ve taken the reliever to check if the reliever medicine helps your lungs to work better.
Your doctor should always explain your spirometry tests results to you, if they don’t, ask them to.
WHERE DO YOU GO TO HAVE A SPIROMETRY TEST?
A spirometry test is usually done at your doctor’s clinic, or your doctor may refer you to a hospital or other respiratory laboratory.
HOW OFTEN SHOULD YOU HAVE A SPIROMETRY TEST?
It’s good to have a spirometry test to help in the diagnosis of asthma and to have a recording of your baseline lung function. After that, your doctor should have your lung function tested every 1–2 years or more often if needed to help in managing your asthma.
Asthma is strongly linked with allergies. Knowing what allergies trigger your asthma may help you to avoid them and manage your asthma symptoms better.
WHAT IS AN ALLERGY TEST?
There are different ways to test for your allergies. The most common tests used are blood tests and skin prick testing. These allergy tests help your doctor confirm the substance (or allergen) to which you are sensitive.
WHAT HAPPENS DURING A SKIN PRICK TEST?
Skin prick testing also known as patch tests is usually done on your forearm. A drop of allergen is put on the skin and a small prick into the skin is made through the drop. This allows a tiny amount of allergen to enter your body. If you are allergic, a small lump will appear over the next 15 to 20 minutes. Blood testing may be performed if skin testing is not possible, such as in cases of severe eczema. This test involves taking a sample of blood which is checked for antibodies to specific allergens.
WHERE DO YOU GET SKIN PRICK TESTING?
A skin prick test can be done at your doctor’s clinic, or your doctor may refer you to a hospital or other allergy clinic.
A treatment trial is a way for your doctor to find out whether your symptoms change while using asthma medicines. It aims to find out if the asthma medicines work to lessen your symptoms.
WHAT HAPPENS DURING A TREATMENT TRIAL
Your doctor will prescribe an asthma medicine for you to use over a period of time. You may find it helpful to use a symptom tracker to record your symptoms and when you used your asthma medicines.
Your doctor will ask you to come back to talk about how well the asthma medicine worked over that time. They can decide whether to continue with the same medicine, try something else, or maybe consider a different diagnosis.
WHO ORDERS A TREATMENT TRIAL?
A treatment trial might come from your usual doctor or your treating doctor if you have been to hospital or emergency.