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Asthma Overview

Asthma is a disease that both inflames and constricts the airways.

It can lead to long-term respiratory symptoms such as:

  • Wheezing
  • Coughing
  • Chest tightness
  • Shortness of breath

There is no cure for asthma. And, for most people, they will not “grow out of” their disease.

However, people with asthma have access to compassionate, leading-edge treatments through the University of Pittsburgh Asthma Institute at UPMC, a comprehensive program dedicated to diagnosing and treating patients along the entire spectrum of the disease, including those with difficult-to-control asthma.

Our approach to the diagnostic evaluation and treatment of asthma is centered on the notion that every patient is different with unique disease characteristics and treatment requirements.

The institute’s researchers also explore fundamental and clinically relevant questions about asthma to gain insights, which may translate into improved treatment options.

Our goal is to help our patients achieve their best quality of life and reduce potential risks, such as exacerbation, in order to preserve their lung function.

Patients are referred to the University of Pittsburgh Asthma Institute at UPMC from across the country and around the world.

Additional Resources

Learn more about the Division of Pulmonary, Allergy, and Critical Care Medicine.

Diagnosing Asthma

At UPMC, the initial evaluation of people who are suspected to have asthma includes:

  • A thorough physical examination
  • An evaluation of past medical history
  • A comprehensive assessment of the nature of respiratory symptoms

The diagnosis is confirmed through breathing tests and, for patients in whom the diagnosis is suspect, methacholine testing. This is performed by inhaling medicine in increasing doses to produce a change in pulmonary function test results.

Depending on the results of the initial evaluation, further tests may include:

  • A high resolution chest CT
  • Analysis of the airway for evidence of inflammation
  • An echocardiogram
  • Specific tests for autoimmune diseases

Once the diagnosis of asthma, or a different disease, is established, studies are done to understand the unique clinical features and determine the appropriate therapy. Some people with asthma, for example, respond poorly to typical asthma therapy and may need special care.

Asthma Treatments

UPMC tailors asthma care to the needs of each individual patient, going beyond standard national and international asthma treatment guidelines.

The term “asthma” is increasingly recognized to apply to several different underlying diseases, similar to the different types of arthritis.

People with asthma who come to the University of Pittsburgh Asthma Institute at UPMC, receive individualized treatment based on those clinical characteristics specific to his or her type of asthma. At the Asthma Institute, “one size” does not fit all.

Evaluating asthma symptoms

Special care is made to fully evaluate and treat common asthma-like or related symptoms, such as:

  • Acid reflux
  • Allergic and/or chronic rhinitis (runny nose)
  • Nasal polyps, or small obstructing (but not cancerous) growths on the lining of nasal passages or sinuses
  • Psychological stress
  • Vocal cord dysfunction

Asthma education, prevention, and treatment

Treatment at UPMC is broadly divided into education, prevention, and treatment.

Every patient is closely supervised by an expert asthma educator to ensure:

  • Adequate use of inhaler devices
  • Reduction or avoidance of environmental triggers
  • Use of asthma action plans

All Asthma Institute patients have 24/7 access to an asthma specialist — via a special phone number — should a flare-up occur. Once a patient is known by the clinical staff, most emergency department and hospital visits can be prevented.

To begin to improve our understanding of the complex issues surrounding people with asthma and severe asthma, every patient has the opportunity to enroll in the Asthma Institute Asthma Registry, as well as a range of clinical trials, many of which are focused on n ew targeted approaches to the treatment of severe forms of asthma.