What Is Asthma?

Asthma is a chronic disease of the airways that makes breathing difficult. With asthma, there is inflammation of the air passages that results in a temporary narrowing of the airways that carry oxygen to the lungs. This results in asthma symptoms, including coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness. If it is severe, asthma can result in decreased activity and inability to talk. Some people refer to asthma as "bronchial asthma."

Even though there are seemingly miraculous treatments for asthma symptoms, asthma is still a serious -- even dangerous -- disease that affects about 26 million Americans and causes nearly 2 million emergency room visits ever year. With proper asthma treatment, you can live well with this condition. Inadequate treatment of the disease limits the ability to exercise and be active. Poorly controlled asthma can lead to multiple visits to the emergency room and even hospital admission, which can affect your performance at home and work.

In each of the following sections, there are in-depth articles that link to the topics. Be sure to read each health topic so you have a greater understanding of asthma and how it is diagnosed and treated.

There are three major features of asthma:

1. Airway obstruction. During normal breathing, the bands of muscle that surround the airways are relaxed, and air moves freely. But in people with asthma, allergy-causing substances, colds and respiratory viruses, and environmental triggers make the bands of muscle surrounding the airways tighten, and air cannot move freely. Less air causes a person to feel short of breath, and the air moving out through the tightened airways causes a whistling sound known as wheezing.

Asthmatic Bronchioles

(Fortunately, this airway narrowing is reversible, a feature that distinguishes asthma from other lung diseases such as bronchitis or emphysema.)

2. Inflammation. People with asthma have red and swollen bronchial tubes. This inflammation is thought to contribute greatly to the long-term damage that asthma can cause to the lungs. And, therefore, treating this inflammation is key to managing asthma in the long run.

3. Airway irritability. The airways of people with asthma are extremely sensitive. The airways tend to overreact and narrow due to even the slightest triggers such as pollen, animal dander, dust, or fumes.

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Adult-Onset Asthma

Asthma may occur at any age, although it's more common in people under age 40. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2013, 18.9 million American adults, or 8.2% of the adult population, had asthma.

People who have a family history of asthma have an increased risk of developing the disease. Allergies and asthma often occur together, along with eczema. Smoking with asthma, a dangerous combination, is still seen commonly.

However, anyone can develop asthma at any time, and adult-onset asthma happens frequently. If you have symptoms of asthma, talk to your doctor. If you have adult-onset asthma, your doctor will instruct you in using the asthma inhalers and other asthma medications to prevent further breathing problems. Your doctor will guide you on which medications are for prevention and which medications are meant to "rescue" you if you experience difficulty breathing.

For more information, see WebMD's Adult-Onset Asthma.

Asthma in Children

Asthma is increasingly prevalent among children. Nearly one in 10 American children now has asthma, a sharp rise that still has scientists searching for a cause. As of 2013, an estimated 7.1 million children under age 18 (9.5%) have been diagnosed with the disease. The rate of childhood asthma has more than doubled since 1980, according to the CDC.

Asthma symptoms can vary from episode to episode in the same child. Signs and symptoms of asthma to look for include:

  • Frequent coughing spells, which may occur during play, at nighttime, or while laughing. It's important to know that coughing with asthma may be the only symptom present.
  • Less energy during play, or pausing to catch breath during play
  • Rapid or shallow breathing
  • Complaint of chest tightness or chest "hurting"
  • Whistling sound when breathing in or out. This whistling sound is called wheezing.
  • Seesaw motions in the chest from labored breathing. These motions are called retractions.
  • Shortness of breath, loss of breath
  • Tightened neck and chest muscles
  • Feelings of weakness or tiredness

For more information, see WebMD's Asthma in Children.

Asthma Causes and Triggers

People with asthma have very sensitive airways that react to many different things in the environment called "asthma triggers." Contact with these triggers cause asthma symptoms to start or worsen. The following are common triggers for asthma:

  • Infections such as sinusitis, colds, and flu
  • Allergens such as pollens, mold spores, pet dander, and dust mites
  • Irritants such as strong odors from perfumes or cleaning solutions, and air pollution
  • Tobacco smoke
  • Exercise (known as exercise-induced asthma)
  • Weather; changes in temperature and/or humidity, cold air
  • Strong emotions such as anxiety, laughter or crying, stress
  • Medications, such as aspirin-sensitive asthma

For more information, see WebMD's Causes of Asthma.

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Asthma Attack

An asthma attack is a sudden worsening of symptoms. With an asthma attack, your airways tighten, swell up, or fill with mucus. Common symptoms include:

  • Coughing, especially at night
  • Wheezing (a high-pitched whistling sound when breathing out)
  • Shortness of breath or trouble breathing
  • Chest tightness, pain, or pressure

Not every person with asthma experiences the same symptoms of an asthma attack. You may not have all of these symptoms, or you may have different symptoms at different times. Your symptoms may be subtle, such as decreased activity, or lethargy. Your symptoms may also vary from mild to severe from one asthma attack to the next.

Status Asthmaticus (Severe Asthma Attacks)

Prolonged asthma attacks that do not respond to treatment with bronchodilators are a medical emergency. Doctors call these severe attacks "status asthmaticus" and they require immediate emergency care.

For more information, see WebMD's Status Asthmaticus.

Asthma Diagnosis and Treatment

If you suspect that you have asthma, see your doctor. Your doctor may refer you to an asthma specialist, also known as a pulmonologist. He or she can examine you and run tests for asthma to determine if you have it.

If an asthma diagnosis is made, there are many asthma treatments available to relieve your symptoms. And be sure your doctor has given you an asthma action plan. This plan should outline your treatment and medications to be used.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Renee A. Alli, MD on March 01, 2016

Sources

SOURCES: 
American Lung Association: "Asthma." 
Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America: "Asthma Overview." 

Centers for Disease Control. 
Murray, J. and Nadel, J. Textbook of Respiratory Medicine, Third edition, W.B. Saunders Company, 2000. 
Rose, B.D. (ed). UpToDate, Wellesley, Mass., 2005.

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