What Is Asthma?
Asthma (AZ-muh) is a chronic disease that affects your airways, which are the tubes that carry air in and out of your lungs. If you have asthma, the inside walls of your airways are inflamed (swollen). The inflammation (IN-fla-MAY-shun) makes the airways very sensitive, and they tend to react strongly to things to which you are allergic or find irritating. When the airways react, they get narrower and less air flows through to your lung tissues. This causes symptoms like wheezing (a whistling sound when you breathe), coughing, chest tightness, and trouble breathing.
Asthma cannot be cured, but for most patients it can be controlled so that you have only minimal and infrequent symptoms and you can live an active life. So, if you have asthma, taking care of it is an important part of your life. Controlling your asthma means staying away from things that bother your airways and taking medicines as directed by your doctor. By controlling your asthma every day, you can prevent serious symptoms and take part in all activities. If your asthma is not well controlled, you are likely to have symptoms that can make you miss school or work and keep you from doing things you enjoy. Asthma is one of the leading causes of children missing school.
When you experience a worsening of your asthma symptoms, it is called an asthma episode or attack. In an asthma attack, muscles around the airways tighten up, making the airway openings narrower so less air can flow through. Inflammation increases and the airways become more swollen and narrow. Cells in the airways also make more mucus than usual. This extra mucus also narrows the airways. These changes cause the symptoms of asthma and make it harder to breathe. Asthma attacks are not all the same-some are worse than others. In a severe asthma attack, the airways can close so much that not enough oxygen gets to vital organs. This condition is a medical emergency. People can die from severe asthma attacks.
If you have asthma, you should see your doctor regularly. You will need to learn what things cause your asthma symptoms to worsen and how to avoid them. Your doctor will also prescribe medicines to keep your asthma under control.
What Causes Asthma?
It is not clear exactly what makes the airways of people with asthma inflamed in the first place. Your inflamed airways may be due to a combination of things. We know that if other people in your family have asthma, you are more likely to develop it. New research suggests exposures early in your life (like tobacco smoke, infections, and some allergens) may be important.
What Causes Asthma Attacks?
There are things that can make asthma symptoms worse and lead to asthma attacks. Some of the more common things that can worsen your asthma symptoms are exercise, allergens, irritants, and viral infections. Some people only have asthma with exercise or a viral infection. The lists below give some examples of things that can worsen asthma symptoms.
- Animal dander (from the skin, hair, or feathers of animals)
- Dust mites (contained in house dust)
- Pollen from trees and grass
- Mold (indoor and outdoor)
- Cigarette smoke
- Air pollution
- Cold air or changes in weather
- Strong odors from painting or cooking
- Scented products
- Strong emotional expression (including crying or laughing hard), and stress
- Medications such as aspirin and beta-blockers
- Sulfites in food (dried fruit) or beverages (wine)
- A condition called gastroesophageal (GAS-tro-e-sof-o-JEE-al) reflux disease (GERD) that causes heartburn and can worsen asthma symptoms, especially at night.
- Irritants or allergens that you may be exposed to at your work such as special chemicals or dusts
This is not a complete list of all the things that can worsen asthma. People can have trouble with one or more of these. It is important for you to learn which ones are problems for you. Your doctor can help you identify which things effect your asthma and ways to avoid them.
Who Gets Asthma?
In the United States, about 15 million people have asthma. Nearly 5 million of them are children. Asthma is closely linked to allergies. Most, but not all, people with asthma have allergies. Children with a family history of allergy and asthma are more likely to have asthma.
Although asthma affects people of all ages, it often starts in childhood and is more common in children than adults. More boys have asthma than girls, but in adulthood, more women have asthma than men.
Although asthma is a problem among all races, blacks have more asthma attacks and are more likely than whites to be hospitalized for asthma attacks and to die from asthma.
What Are the Symptoms of Asthma?
Common asthma symptoms include:
- Coughing.Coughing from asthma is often worse at night or early in the morning, making it hard to sleep.
- Wheezing.Wheezing is a whistling or squeaky sound when you breathe.
- Chest tightness.This can feel like something is squeezing or sitting on your chest.
- Shortness of breath.Some people say they can’t catch their breath, or they feel breathless or out of breath. You may feel like you can’t get enough air in or out of your lungs.
- Faster breathing or noisy breathing.
People with asthma may have:
- Wheezing when they have a cold or other illness
- Frequent coughing, especially at night (sometimes this is the only sign of asthma in a child)
- Asthma symptoms brought on by exercises such as running, biking, or other brisk activity, especially during cold weather
- Coughing or wheezing brought on by prolonged crying or laughing
- Coughing or wheezing when they are near an allergen or irritant
If you notice that you or your child has these symptoms, talk to your doctor or your child’s doctor.
Not all people have these symptoms, and symptoms may vary from one asthma attack to another. Symptoms can differ in how severe they are: sometimes symptoms can be mildly annoying; other times they can be serious enough to make you stop what you are doing, and sometimes symptoms can be so serious that they are life threatening. Symptoms also differ in how often they occur. Some people with asthma only have symptoms once every few months, others have symptoms every week, and still other people have symptoms every day. With proper treatment, however, most people with asthma can expect to have minimal or no symptoms.
How Is Asthma Diagnosed?
Some things your doctor will ask about include:
- Periods of coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, or chest tightness that come on suddenly or occur often or seem to happen during certain times of year or season
- Colds that seem to “go to the chest” or take more than 10 days to get over
- Medicines you may have used to help your breathing
- Your family history of asthma and allergies
- What things seem to cause asthma symptoms or make them worse.
Your doctor will listen to your breathing and look for signs of asthma or allergies.