Conditions InDepth: Asthma

Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disease that affects the lining of the airways, causing bronchospasm.

The airways become inflamed and swollen and produce extra mucus. Episodes of asthma (called asthma attacks) occur when the airway narrows, making it difficult to breathe.

Inflamed Bronchus in the Lungs

© 2008 Nucleus Medical Art, Inc.

During an asthma attack, symptoms may range from mild wheezing (whistling or hissing sound as you breathe) to severe obstruction of the airways, potentially causing a life-threatening inability to breathe. Cough-variant asthma manifests as persistent, chronic cough without shortness of breath. Although asthma can be very serious, there are many ways to prevent and control symptoms.

The underlying cause of asthma is two-fold: 1) inflammation in the lining of the lung, and 2) structural changes in the lung due to inflammation and narrowing of air passages. Factors in the environment (both indoors and outdoors), called triggers, can make asthma symptoms worse and cause asthma attacks in people who have asthma.

Known asthma triggers include:

  • Allergens:
    • Pollen
    • Mold
    • Animal dander (fine scales from skin, hair, or feathers)
    • Dust mites
    • Cockroaches
  • Viral infections of the respiratory tract
  • Irritants:
    • Strong odors or sprays
    • Chemicals (including preservatives containing sulfites and dyes which are in many foods)
    • Air pollutants (especially ozone, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide)
    • Changing weather conditions
  • Tobacco smoke or wood smoke
  • Drugs (including aspirin and other over-the-counter painkillers in individuals with a special type of asthma)
  • Exercise (especially when exertion occurs in a cold environment)
  • Emotional stress

What are the risk factors for asthma?
What are the symptoms of asthma?
How is asthma diagnosed?
What are the treatments for asthma?
Are there screening tests for asthma?
How can I reduce my risk of asthma?
What questions should I ask my healthcare provider?
What is it like for a child to live with asthma?
What is it like for an adult to live with asthma?
Where can I get more information about asthma?

References:

American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology website. Available at: http://www.aaaai.org/ .

American Medical Association website. Available at: http://www.ama-assn.org/ .

Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America website. Available at: http://www.aafa.org/ .

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases website. Available at: http://www3.niaid.nih.gov/ .

National Library of Medicine website. Available at: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/ .



Last reviewed January 2007 by Kari Kassir, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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