Asthma is a long-term disease that affects the bronchial tubes — the airways that help air flow in and out of your lungs.
If you have asthma, these airways may become inflamed and narrowed at certain points in time, causing you to experience symptoms such as breathlessness, wheezing, a tightening feeling in your chest and coughing.
The symptoms of asthma can vary widely in severity from person to person. Some people may only notice mild asthma symptoms every now and then, while others may have severe, chronic asthma that’s noticeable every day.
Asthma is a common disease in children and often develops during childhood, but it can affect people of all ages. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, more than 24 million American children and adults are currently affected by asthma.
A diverse range of factors may play a role in asthma, including your genetics and your level of exposure to certain irritants and allergens in the environment.
While there’s no cure for asthma, there are treatments available that can help you to keep your asthma symptoms under control.
Below, we’ve explained what asthma is, as well as the symptoms you may experience if you’re asthmatic. We’ve also looked at the factors that may contribute to asthma, from generics to the environmental factors that can cause forms of asthma such as occupational asthma.
Finally, we’ve discussed the treatments that you can use to control your asthma symptoms, as well as lifestyle changes you may be able to implement to reduce your risk of dealing with the symptoms of asthma in the future.
Asthma is a disease that affects the airways that allow air to flow in and out of your lungs, called the bronchial tubes.
In a person without asthma, the bronchial tubes function normally, allowing air to flow in and out from the lungs. In a person with asthma, the bronchial tubes are inflamed and swollen, making it harder for air to flow to and from the lungs when you breathe.
Asthma isn’t the only disease that causes the bronchial tubes to become inflamed. For example, some infections, such as acute bronchitis, also cause the bronchial tubes to temporarily become inflamed and make breathing difficult.
The difference is that while most other diseases that affect the bronchial tubes cause temporary symptoms, asthma can cause permanent inflammation.
Many people with asthma don’t experience symptoms from day to day. However, their airways may suddenly become swollen and tight when they’re exposed to an asthma trigger, such as a moldy or damp environment, a certain type of animal or polluted air.
Asthma can cause a range of symptoms related to your airways. The symptoms of asthma can vary hugely in severity. For some people, asthma causes mild symptoms that are fairly easy to control.
If you have mild asthma, you may be able to live a normal life with only mild symptoms that are uncomfortable but tolerable in most situations.
For others, it can cause debilitating, potentially life-threatening symptoms. If you have severe asthma, seemingly “simple” things such as spending time outdoors in certain seasons, working out or being exposed to pollution may trigger an asthma attack.
Everyone diagnosed with asthma needs an asthma action plan develop in conjunction with your healthcare provider.
Common signs and symptoms of asthma include:
Not everyone with asthma experiences all of these symptoms. You may only experience one or two of the symptoms listed above when you’re exposed to a certain type of trigger, but still have asthma.
If you have one or more of the symptoms listed above and think that you may have asthma, it’s important to talk to your healthcare provider. You can also consult with a primary care provider online and, if appropriate, receive medication to help you manage your asthma symptoms.
For many people, asthma symptoms appear suddenly during flare-ups, or asthma attacks. For example, a person with asthma may experience few or no symptoms, then quickly experience severe asthma symptoms after exposure to a specific allergen or irritant.
We’ve explained more about asthma attacks and the factors that can trigger them further down this page.
Currently, experts aren’t yet aware of the exact factors that cause asthma. However, modern research indicates that asthma is usually caused by an overly aggressive immune response to certain irritants or allergens in the lungs.
Many diseases are linked to the body’s immune response to certain substances. For example, some people experience allergic immune system reactions after eating certain foods or using certain types of medication.
When your body detects an infection or allergen, it responds by mobilizing your immune system to clear the intruder away. Normally, this is a good thing. For example, your immune system is a vital tool for getting rid of bacterial infections and viruses.
Part of the immune system’s response to injury and infection is inflammation. When your body’s tissue is damaged by a harmful substance, the damaged cells release chemicals that cause the area to become inflamed and swollen.
While this process can be uncomfortable, it helps to isolate the dangerous substance from your tissue, allowing the white blood cells of your immune system to respond to the threat and keep you healthy.
Every person is biologically unique, and no two people have identical immune systems. When one person breathes in a certain allergen, their immune system may only have a mild reaction that causes little or no inflammation.
If a different person comes into contact with the same allergen, the immune system may have an extreme reaction, causing significant inflammation and swelling of the airways.
Research suggests that asthma could be linked to immune system reactions that occur during childhood. A variety of factors may affect this immune response, including both genetics and factors in a person’s environment.
Although asthma usually develops in childhood, it can also develop in adults. When asthma is something that develops after childhood or adolescence, it’s generally referred to as late-onset or adult-onset asthma.
Certain factors could make you more at risk of developing asthma than other people. These can range from your genes to factors related to your occupation or lifestyle, such as your workplace or the area in which you live.
Experts believe that genetics may play a major role in the development of asthma. More than 100 genes are believed to be linked with allergic asthma, with many of these genes associated with airway function and the body’s immune response.
However, the relationship between specific genes and asthma is complex, with more research necessary before we can draw a direct relationship between certain genes and asthma risk.
People with relatives who have asthma may have a higher risk of developing asthma, as there is evidence that asthma may be passed down in families. Research shows that children with parents who have asthma (in particular, an asthmatic mother) have an elevated risk.
Your ethnicity may also affect your risk of developing asthma. For example, people of Puerto Rican or African descent have an elevated risk of developing asthma compared to people of other ethnicities.
Certain factors in your environment may affect your risk of developing asthma, both as a child and as an adult. In children, these may include:
In adults, environmental factors that may contribute to asthma include:
If you’re exposed to an allergen or other environmental asthma trigger, your asthma symptoms might suddenly flare up. This is known as an asthma attack. Asthma attacks can develop slowly or come on rapidly and, for some people, can cause severe, life-threatening symptoms.
During an asthma attack, you may experience coughing, difficulty breathing and a strong feeling of tightness in your chest. Your bronchial tubes may constrict so much that no matter how hard you try, taking a normal breath can feel extremely difficult.
Asthma attacks can vary in duration and severity. While a mild asthma attack may only go on for a few minutes, severe asthma attacks can cause symptoms that last for hours. In some cases, an asthma attack may continue over several days.
A variety of different substances can trigger asthma attacks, including natural allergens that are released from plants, illnesses and certain man-made substances. Common triggers for asthma attacks include:
Some asthma triggers are behavioral instead of physical. For example, some people get asthma symptoms while exercising because of the shortness of breath caused by aerobic exercise. This is referred to as exercise-induced bronchoconstriction, or EIB.
Other people may get asthma symptoms due to laughter. For example, a small study from 2005 found that 56 percent of people affected by asthma get laughter-induced asthma (LIA), a type of asthma that may be triggered by laughter-related breathing patterns.
Because asthma can vary in severity, there’s no one-size-fits-all treatment for every person with asthma. Instead, your healthcare provider will recommend a suitable treatment for you based on the type and severity of asthma symptoms you experience, as well as your asthma triggers.
Asthma is typically treated using medication. There are two main types of asthma medications that you may be prescribed to control your symptoms:
Quick relief medications are usually prescribed to treat mild asthma. You may be prescribed a medication of this type if you only experience asthma during demanding physical activity, such as when you exercise.
One of the most common quick relief medications for asthma is the rescue inhaler. These are also known as “metered-dose” inhalers, or simply as asthma inhalers. They work by releasing medication that relaxes the muscles around your airways to make breathing easier.
The medications used in rescue inhalers are referred to as inhaled short-acting beta2-agonists, or SABAs. SABAs used to treat asthma include salbutamol (also referred to as albuterol, and sold as Ventolin®) and levosalbutamol (also referred to as levalbuterol).
These medications are often effective, but they can cause side effects such as rapid heartbeat and tremors.
They’re also not intended for constant use. If you have asthma and you use your rescue inhaler more than two times per week, your healthcare provider may recommend using a longer-acting form of medication to control your symptoms.
Some asthma inhalers contain corticosteroids such as prednisone. These are intended for use as-needed during asthma attacks. However, these medications can cause side effects when used over the long term and should be used cautiously and with guidance of your healthcare provider.
Finally, some asthma inhalers contain medications called short-acting anticholinergics. These are intended for short-term relief of asthma and may be prescribed for people who experience side effects from inhalers containing salbutamol or levosalbutamol.
Control medications are used to prevent and manage asthma symptoms in the long term. Like quick relief medications, they work by reducing inflammation and preventing your airways from becoming overly narrow.
Unlike quick relief medications, control medications are designed to work constantly. If you’re prescribed a medication of this type, you’ll need to take it daily in order for it to be effective at preventing asthma.
Several long-term control medications are available for asthma. They include:
If you experience a severe asthma attack that doesn’t improve with medication, you should seek emergency medical care.
Call 911 or go to your hospital’s emergency department if your asthma symptoms become more severe even with the use of medication, you feel drowsy, or your peak expiratory flow falls to 50 percent of your personal best or less.
Although there’s no cure for asthma, using your medication and making small, simple changes to your lifestyle can make living with asthma significantly easier. Try the following tips to stay in control of your asthma and prevent asthma attacks from occurring:
Asthma is a common disease that affects tens of millions of Americans of all ages. It can vary hugely in severity, with some people only experiencing mild symptoms and others affected by severe, chronic asthma attacks.
While asthma unfortunately isn’t curable, a range of effective treatments are available to help you keep your asthma symptoms under control and enjoy a high quality of life.
If you think that you may have asthma, talk to your healthcare provider. You can also talk to a primary care provider online to receive personalized advice and, if appropriate, medication to treat your asthma symptoms.