What is Asthma?
Asthma is a common chronic inflammatory disease of the airways characterized by variable and recurring symptoms, reversible airflow obstruction.
Asthma (AZ-ma) is a chronic (long-term) lung disease that inflames and narrows the airways. Asthma causes recurring periods of wheezing (a whistling sound when you breathe), chest tightness, shortness of breath, and coughing. The coughing often occurs at night or early in the morning.
Asthma affects people of all ages, but it most often starts during childhood. In the United States, more than 25 million people are known to have asthma. About 7 million of these people are children.
To understand asthma, it helps to know how the airways work. The airways are tubes that carry air into and out of your lungs. People who have asthma have inflamed airways. This makes them swollen and very sensitive. They tend to react strongly to certain inhaled substances.
When the airways react, the muscles around them tighten. This narrows the airways, causing less air to flow into the lungs. The swelling also can worsen, making the airways even narrower. Cells in the airways might make more mucus than usual. Mucus is a sticky, thick liquid that can further narrow the airways.
This chain reaction can result in asthma symptoms. Symptoms can happen each time the airways are inflamed.
Sometimes asthma symptoms are mild and go away on their own or after minimal treatment with asthma medicine. Other times, symptoms continue to get worse.
When symptoms get more intense and/or more symptoms occur, you’re having an asthma attack. Asthma attacks also are called flare ups or exacerbations (eg-zas-er-BA-shuns).
Treating symptoms when you first notice them is important. This will help prevent the symptoms from worsening and causing a severe asthma attack. Severe asthma attacks may require emergency care, and they can be fatal.
According to the leading experts in asthma, the symptoms of asthma and best treatment for you or your child may be quite different than for someone else with asthma.
The most common symptom is wheezing. This is a scratchy or whistling sound when you breathe. Other symptoms include:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest tightness or pain
- Chronic coughing
- Trouble sleeping due to coughing or wheezing
Asthma symptoms, also called asthma flare-ups or asthma attacks, are often caused by allergies and exposure to allergens such as pet dander, dust mites, pollen or mold. Non-allergic triggers include smoke, pollution or cold air or changes in weather.
Asthma symptoms may be worse during exercise, when you have a cold or during times of high stress.
Children with asthma may show the same symptoms as adults with asthma: coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath. In some children chronic cough may be the only symptom.
If your child has one or more of these common symptoms, make an appointment with an allergist / immunologist:
- Coughing that is constant or that is made worse by viral infections, happens while your child is asleep, or is triggered by exercise and cold air
- Wheezing or whistling sound when your child exhales
- Shortness of breath or rapid breathing, which may be associated with exercise
- Chest tightness (a young child may say that his chest “hurts” or “feels funny”)
- Fatigue (your child may slow down or stop playing)
- Problems feeding or grunting during feeding (infants)
- Avoiding sports or social activities
- Problems sleeping due to coughing or difficulty breathing
Patterns in asthma symptoms are important and can help your doctor make a diagnosis. Pay attention to when symptoms occur:
- At night or early morning
- During or after exercise
- During certain seasons
- After laughing or crying
- When exposed to common asthma triggers
Treatment for Asthma
- Asthma Treatments
Early and aggressive asthma treatment is key to relieving symptoms and preventing asthma attacks. Find out the many ways asthma is treated and then talk to your doctor to find out what’s right for you.
- Asthma Medications
Asthma medication can work quickly to stop coughing and wheezing. Learn more about asthma medications and the various methods for taking them.
- Asthma Inhalers
Wonder if you’re using your asthma inhaler the right way? Do you puff and breathe … or breathe and puff? Learn how to get the most relief from your asthma inhaler.
- When and How to Use an Inhaler
Control inhalers are used whether you’re having asthma symptoms or not. They contain medications that help control inflammation, which can help prevent flares and keep symptoms from getting worse.
- Steroids & Other Anti-Inflammatory Drugs
Do you suffer with thick mucus and swelling in the airways? Learn how asthma is treated with anti-inflammatory medications and how these inhaled and oral medications can prevent asthma attacks.
- Bronchodilators: Airway Openers
Do your lungs feel tight? A bronchodilator may help. Read more to learn about the different types of inhalers and how they work to open your airways and relieve asthma.
- Asthma Nebulizer (Breathing Machine)
An asthma nebulizer (breathing machine) can deliver medication to the youngest and oldest asthma patients. Read more about nebulizers to understand how they work.
- Prednisone and Asthma: Stopping an Asthma Attack
Sometimes stronger asthma medications are necessary to decrease symptoms. Learn more about prednisone and asthma, how it works, and the possible side effects.
- Bronchial Thermoplasty for Asthma
Bronchial thermoplasty is a treatment for severe asthma. The procedure uses gentle heat to shrink the smooth muscles in your lungs the ones that tighten during asthma attacks and make it hard to breathe.