Asthma – What Is It?

What is Asthma?

Asthma is a long-term (chronic) lung disease that causes episodes of coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath. Like all chronic illnesses, asthma cannot be cured, but it is very manageable.

Common Symptoms:

  • Coughing: Coughing from asthma is often worse at night or early morning. Sometimes it’s your only symptom. It can be dry or mucus-filled.
  • Wheezing: This is a whistling or squeaky sound especially when you breathe out. Sometimes wheezing can be heard easily; other times you need a stethoscope.
  • Chest tightness: This can feel like something is squeezing or sitting on your chest.
  • Shortness of breath: You may feel breathless, like you can’t catch your breath or breathe deeply enough. You may feel as though you are out of shape and constantly tired.

How Does Asthma Affect the Lungs?

Your lungs are made up of miles and miles of tiny airways, from the large airway of the windpipe (trachea) to the tiny air sacs (alveoli) deep inside the lungs where oxygen moves into the bloodstream.

Normally, your lungs bring in fresh air and push out used air, but when you have asthma it is harder to do this because:

  • The linings of the airways swell
  • Your body makes too much mucus, which clogs the airways
  • Muscles around the airways get tight, making them narrow, with less room for air to pass through

Quiet Asthma – Inflammation

When you have asthma, your airways become easily inflamed and swollen. Since you can’t feel or see what’s going on, we call this airway inflammation the quiet part of asthma. If it’s not treated, the inflammation increases and your symptoms are likely to get worse each time your airways are exposed to your asthma triggers,

Noisy Asthma – Bronchospasm

When your airways are inflamed, they are very sensitive. Like sunburned skin hurts when you touch it, inflamed airways react to irritation. It can be an immune system response to allergies or to a cold or flu virus; or a reaction to cold air, strong smells, exercise, stress or laughter. Exposure triggers bronchospasm – the noisy asthma symptoms of coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath.

What Causes Asthma?

Anyone of any age, family background, race, gender or general health can develop asthma. Researchers think many genetic and environmental factors play a role, especially during the first years of life when the immune system is developing.  These factors include:

  • Family history If your parents or siblings have allergies or asthma, your chances of developing it increase. 
  • Exposure to secondhand smoke – Smoking, or exposure to secondhand smoke, especially in early childhood or from mothers who smoked while they were pregnant. 
  • Environmental irritants – Exhaust fumes, air pollution, indoor allergens such as dust mites, cockroaches and mold, chemical irritants or industrial dusts in the workplace have all been identified as risk factors for asthma.
  • Premature birth or respiratory illnesses that harm the lungs - Recent studies have shown that children who were born prematurely or suffered from a respiratory illness early on are at a higher risk of asthma.

What Causes Asthma Symptoms?

The first steps to managing asthma are paying attention to your body, recognizing the early signs of a flare and understanding what sets off your symptoms. What irritates your lungs and sets off your symptoms – often called your “triggers” — may be very different from what affects other people with asthma, even others in your own family. Perhaps you are affected by allergens, environmental irritants or exercise – or maybe symptoms only appear when you have a cold illness. Tracking symptoms, medications and activities with a daily symptom diary can help you identify your triggers and then take steps to avoid or reduce contact with them.

Common allergy-related asthma triggers:

  • Outdoor allergens, such as mold and pollens from grass, trees and weeds
  • Indoor allergens, such as dust mites, cockroaches, pet dander and mold
  • Some food allergies 

Common non-allergy-related triggers:

  • Smoke, including personal use of tobacco products, secondhand smoke from others’ smoking, and indoor fireplaces
  • Irritants in the air such as air pollution, smoke, chemical fumes and strong odors
  • Exercise 
  • Colds, flu and other respiratory illness
  • Hormonal changes (both female and male)
  • Weather conditions (such as cold air, humidity, thunderstorms) or weather changes
  • Emotional anxiety and stress, including laughing or crying
  • Some medications, including aspirin, NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen) and beta blockers
  • Acid reflux, or GERD, with or without heartburn 

Is Asthma Serious?

All asthma is serious. There is no way of telling whether an asthma flare will last seconds, minutes or hours – or will turn life-threatening. One-third of all people who die of asthma had been diagnosed with “mild” asthma. No matter what your past diagnosis, how infrequent your symptoms are or how good you’re feeling right now, your asthma can change without warning. That’s why it’s important to know what causes your symptoms, what your medications do and how to respond to early warning signals as well as breathing emergencies.

Will I Outgrow Asthma?

Asthma is a lifelong disease that cannot be “outgrown.” Your immune system changes throughout your life and your asthma symptoms will too. However, you will always have the potential to experience asthma symptoms and must be aware that they can return at any time.

With correct diagnosis, careful management and appropriate use of medications, you can go years without any problems. On the other hand, if you let asthma get out of control, it can cause long-term lung damage. Most people with asthma should be able to do anything those without asthma can do:

  • Be free from troublesome symptoms day and night

  • Have the best possible lung function

  • Participate freely in activities of your choice

  • Miss few or no school or work days because of asthma symptoms

  • Have fewer or no urgent care visits or hospital stays for asthma

  • Have few or no side effects from asthma medications

© 2018 Allergy and Asthma Network


This information is for general educational uses only. It may not apply to you and your personal medical needs. This information should not be used in place of a visit, call, consultation with or the advice of your physician or health care professional.

Communicate promptly with your physician or other health care professional with any health-related questions or concerns.

Be sure to follow specific instructions given to you by your physician or health care professional.

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