Asthma is a chronic inflammatory condition that narrows and irritates the airways of the lungs. Affecting nearly 24 million Americans, asthma is a very common, but non-contagious respiratory disease that usually begins in childhood and continues into adulthood. The effects of asthma vary in severity from person to person.
Common symptoms of asthma include:
Asthma develops over an individual’s lifetime and may vary in severity from person to person. Most people experience asthma symptoms during an “asthma attack” - or, an episode triggered potentially triggered by factors above, that results in sensations commonly associated with the condition.
These common symptoms include:
- Breathing problems, such as shortness of breath
- Coughing episodes
- Wheezing while exhaling (a sort of whistling rasp as you breathe out)
- Chest tightness
More severe cases of asthma may cause chronic problems such as:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Frequent asthma attacks
- Increased need for an inhaler (especially after physical activity)
While most asthma attacks are manageable with a quick-relief inhaler, certain triggers or a worsening condition can lead to severe - potentially life-threatening - episodes.
Seek emergency medical attention if you experience:
- Shortness of breath that becomes rapidly worse
- Shortness of breath after minimal physical exertion
- No improvement in breathing after using a quick-relief inhaler
Causes of Asthma
There is no common cause of asthma, although it is widely agreed that a combination of genetics (inheriting the condition from a parent) and environment play significant roles in who develops it and who doesn’t. Asthma often develops throughout an individual’s life, usually first appearing during childhood. The severity of asthma may vary from person to person. Many people with asthma experience infrequent attacks that can lead to wheezing and shortness of breath, while others may experience persistent difficulty breathing.
The most common triggers of asthma attacks are:
- Allergens such as mold, pollen, dust, and pet dander
- Physical activity
- Pollutants and irritants such as smog and secondhand smoke
- Cold air
- Respiratory infections (like a common cold)
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Sulfites and preservatives found in food
Asthma Risk Factors
While there is no common cause of asthma, several factors may increase the risk that you or your child develop the condition. These risk factors include:
Genetics: Asthma is often passed from parent to child.
Allergies: Individuals who experience allergic reactions such as sneezing, coughing, skin rashes, and itchy eyes may also develop asthma triggered by allergens.
Smoking: Smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke can dramatically increase your or your child’s risk of developing asthma.
Pollutants: Exposure to pollutants, cleaning chemicals, and fumes (like exhaust) can increase your risk of developing asthma.
Weight: Being overweight may increase your risk of developing correlated health conditions, such as asthma.