Asthma Overview

Click HERE for a video demonstrating what happens during an attack.

Introduction

Asthma occurs when the main air passages of your lungs, the bronchial tubes, become inflamed. The muscles of the bronchial walls tighten, and cells in the lungs produce extra mucus further narrowing your airways. This can cause minor wheezing to severe difficulty in breathing. In some cases, your breathing may be so labored that an asthma attack becomes life-threatening.

Asthma is a chronic but treatable condition. You can manage your condition much like someone manages diabetes or heart disease. You and your doctor can work together to control asthma, reduce the severity and frequency of attacks and help maintain a normal, active life.

Signs and symptoms

Asthma signs and symptoms can range from mild to severe. You may have only occasional asthma episodes with mild, short-lived symptoms such as wheezing. In between episodes you may feel normal and have no difficulty breathing. Some people with asthma have chronic coughing and wheezing punctuated by severe asthma attacks.

Most asthma attacks are preceded by warning signs. Recognizing these warning signs and treating symptoms early can help prevent attacks or keep them from becoming worse.

Warning signs and symptoms of asthma in adults may include:

  • Increased shortness of breath or wheezing
  • Disturbed sleep caused by shortness of breath, coughing or wheezing
  • Chest tightness or pain
  • Increased need to use bronchodilators medications that open up airways by relaxing the surrounding muscles
  • A fall in peak flow rates as measured by a peak flow meter, a simple and inexpensive device that allows you to monitor your own lung function

Children often have an audible whistling or wheezing sound when exhaling and frequent coughing spasms.

Causes

Asthma is probably due to a combination of environmental and genetic factors. You’re more likely to develop asthma if it runs in your family and if you’re sensitive to environmental allergens or irritants. Early, frequent infections and chronic exposure to secondhand smoke or certain allergens may increase your chances of developing asthma.

Exposure to various allergens and irritants may trigger your asthma symptoms. The following are common things that trigger asthma symptoms:

  • Allergens, such as pollen, animal dander or mold
  • Cockroaches and dust mites
  • Air pollutants and irritants
  • Smoke
  • Strong odors or scented products or chemicals
  • Respiratory infections, including the common cold
  • Physical exertion, including exercise
  • Strong emotions and stress
  • Cold air
  • Certain medications, including beta blockers, aspirin and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
  • Sulfites, preservatives added to some perishable foods
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a condition in which stomach acids back up into your esophagus. GERD may trigger an asthma attack or make an attack worse.
  • Sinusitis

Risk factors

Approximately 14 million adults and 6 million children in the U.S. have asthma. In fact, asthma is the most common chronic illness of childhood and a common reason for missed school days. Asthma is more common in boys than in girls. But after puberty asthma is more common in females.

A number of factors may increase your chances of developing asthma. These include:

  • Living in a large urban area, especially the inner city, which may increase exposure to environmental pollutants
  • Exposure to secondhand smoke
  • Exposure to occupational triggers, such as chemicals used in farming and hairdressing, and in paint, steel, plastics, and electronics manufacturing
  • Having one or both parents with asthma
  • Respiratory infections in childhood
  • Low birth weight
  • Obesity
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)

When to seek medical advice

Three key circumstances may lead you to talk to your doctor about asthma:

  • If you think you have asthma. Wheezing, difficulty breathing, pain or tightening in your chest, or coughing are common signs and symptoms of asthma. Wheezing, especially, is a frequent sign of asthma in children. However, some people with asthma never wheeze. Instead, they have recurrent, spasmodic coughs that are often worse at night. If you or your children have frequent coughs that last more than a few days or any other signs or symptoms of asthma, see your doctor.
  • If you know you have asthma. If you know you have asthma, talk to your doctor about ways to manage your condition. Working as a team, you and your doctor can develop a plan to help you control your signs and symptoms, prevent an attack or stop an attack in progress. Don’t try to treat asthma yourself. Many asthma deaths result from a lack of proper treatment.
  • If your medication isn’t working. Sometimes your medications may not offer the relief you need. Be sure to contact your doctor right away if a prescribed dosage of medication doesn’t work for you. In some cases you may not be using your inhalers correctly. Don’t try to solve the problem by taking more medication without consulting your doctor — overusing inhalers or taking too much medication can be dangerous.

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