Asthma is an inflammatory disease of the airways to the lungs. It makes breathing difficult and can make some physical activities difficult or even impossible.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 27 million Americans have asthma. It’s the most common chronic condition among American children: 1 child out of every 12 has asthma.
To understand asthma, you need to understand a little about what happens when you breathe.
Normally, with every breath you take, air goes through your nose and down into your throat, into your airways, eventually making it to your lungs. There are lots of small air passages in your lungs that help deliver oxygen from the air into your bloodstream.
Asthma symptoms occur when the lining of your airways swell and the muscles around them tighten. Mucus then fills the airways, further reducing the amount of air that can pass through.
These conditions then bring on an asthma “attack,” the coughing and tightness in your chest that is typical of asthma.
Symptoms of asthma include:
- coughing, especially at night, when laughing, or during exercise
- wheezing, a squealing or whistling sound made when breathing
- tightness in the chest
- shortness of breath
The type of asthma that you have can determine which symptoms you experience.
Not everyone with asthma will experience these particular symptoms. If you think the symptoms you’re experiencing could be a sign of a condition such as asthma, make an appointment to see your doctor.
The first indication that you have asthma may not be an actual asthma attack. Discover some early symptoms of asthma you may experience instead.
No single cause has been identified for asthma. Instead, researchers believe that the breathing condition is caused by a variety of factors. These factors include:
- Genetics. If a parent has asthma, you’re more likely to develop it.
- History of viral infections. People with a history of viral infections during childhood are more likely to develop the condition.
- Hygiene hypothesis. This hypothesis proposes that babies aren’t exposed to enough bacteria in their early months and years. Therefore, their immune systems don’t become strong enough to fight off asthma and other conditions.
- Early allergen exposure. Frequent contact with possible allergens and irritants may increase your risk for developing asthma.
Certain conditions and environments may also trigger symptoms of asthma. These triggers include:
- Illness. Respiratory illnesses such as the flu and pneumonia can trigger asthma attacks.
- Exercise. Increased movement may make breathing more difficult.
- Irritants in the air. People with asthma may be sensitive to irritants such as chemical fumes, strong odors, and smoke.
- Allergens. Animal dander, dust mites, and pollen are just a few examples of allergens that can trigger symptoms.
- Extreme weather conditions. Conditions such as very high humidity or low temperatures may trigger asthma.
- Emotions. Shouting, laughing, and crying may trigger an attack.
The list of possible causes and triggers is extensive. Check out even more examples here.
Treatments for asthma fall into three primary categories: breathing exercises, rescue or first aid treatments, and long-term asthma control medications.
Your doctor will determine the right treatment or combination of treatments for you based on the type of asthma you have, your age, and your triggers.
These exercises can help you get more air into and out of your lungs. Over time, this may help increase lung capacity and cut down on severe asthma symptoms. Your doctor or an occupational therapist can help you learn these breathing exercises for asthma.
Rescue or first aid treatments
These medications should only be used in the event of an asthma attack. They provide quick relief to help you breathe again. Examples include:
- rescue inhalers and nebulizers, which are used with medicine that needs to be inhaled deep into the lungs
- bronchodilators, which work to relax the tightened muscles in your lung
- anti-inflammatories, which target inflammation in your lungs that could be preventing your breathing
If you think that someone you know is having an asthma attack, you should sit them upright and assist them in using their rescue inhaler or nebulizer. Two to six puffs of medication should help ease their symptoms.
If symptoms persist for more than 20 minutes, and a second round of medication doesn’t help, seek medical attention.
Long-term asthma control mediations
These medications should be taken daily to prevent symptoms. Some rescue treatments, such as inhalers and nebulizers, can be used daily. However, your doctor will need to adjust your dosages.
Several types of medications are used to treat asthma. Read more about each one to understand their risks and benefits.
In general, over-the-counter (OTC) medicines and alternative remedies aren’t encouraged as treatments for asthma. If not treated properly, asthma can be life-threatening.
However, these home remedies may help stop symptoms from escalating and may be effective in an emergency:
- Coffee or caffeinated tea. A chemical in caffeine acts similarly to the asthma drug theophylline. It opens up airways and may ease symptoms of asthma for up to four hours.
- Essential oils. Inhaling eucalyptus essential oil may ease breathing difficulties brought on by asthma. Lavender and basil essential oils also show promise. However, for some individuals, inhaling essential oils may make asthma worse. Strong smells and chemicals can trigger asthma or worsen symptoms.
- Mustard oil. This fatty oil, made from pressed mustard seeds, can be massaged into the skin to help open airways. Mustard oil is different than mustard essential oil, a medicinal oil which shouldn’t be applied directly to the skin.
Other home remedies may help ease symptoms of an asthma attack. Read about even more home remedies that can allow you to breathe more efficiently.
Bronchial asthma is simply another name for the most common type of asthma. Symptoms include coughing, wheezing, chest tightness, and shortness of breath.
Unless a specific type of asthma is mentioned, most references made to asthma are about bronchial asthma.
Bronchitis vs. asthma
Despite having similar symptoms, bronchitis and asthma aren’t related conditions. They both lead to inflamed airways that can make breathing difficult, but key distinctions separate the two conditions.
Like asthma, bronchitis can also be acute — that is, treatment will end the symptoms — or chronic. Both chronic bronchitis and chronic asthma need to be treated daily in order to avoid worsening symptoms. Learn more about the similarities and differences between asthma and bronchitis.
The most common type of asthma is bronchial asthma, which affects the bronchi in the lungs.
Additional forms of asthma include childhood asthma and adult-onset asthma. In adult-onset asthma, symptoms don’t appear until at least age 20.
Other types of asthma are described below.
Allergic asthma (extrinsic asthma)
Allergens trigger this type of asthma. These might include:
Nonallergic asthma (intrinsic asthma)
Irritants in the air not related to allergies trigger this type of asthma. Irritants might include:
- burning wood and cigarette smoke
- cold air
- air pollution
- viral illnesses
- air fresheners
- household cleaning products
Occupational asthma is a type of asthma induced by triggers in the workplace. These include:
- gases and fumes
- industrial chemicals
- animal proteins
- rubber latex
These irritants can exist in a wide range of industries, including farming, textiles, woodworking, and manufacturing.
Exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB)
Exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB) usually affects people within a few minutes of starting exercise and up to 10–15 minutes after physical activity. This condition was previously known as exercise-induced asthma (EIA).
Up to 90 percent of people with asthma also experience EIB, but not everyone with EIB will have other types of asthma.
In this type of asthma, symptoms worsen at night.
Triggers that are thought to bring on symptoms at night include heartburn, pet dander, and dust mites. The body’s natural sleep cycle may also trigger nocturnal asthma.
Cough-variant asthma (CVA)
Cough-variant asthma doesn’t have classic asthma symptoms of wheezing and shortness of breath. CVA is characterized by a persistent, dry cough.
Cough-variant asthma can lead to full-blown asthma flares that include the other more common symptoms. Find out how to identify an asthma cough here.
There’s no single test or exam that will determine if you or your child has asthma. Instead, your doctor will use a variety of criteria to determine if symptoms are the result of asthma.
The following can help diagnose asthma:
- Health history. If you have family members with the breathing disorder, your risk is higher. Alert your doctor to this genetic connection.
- Physical exam. Your doctor will listen to your breathing with a stethoscope. They may also conduct a skin test, looking for signs of an allergic reaction such as hives or eczema. Allergies increase your risk for asthma.
- Breathing tests. Your doctor may use pulmonary function tests (PFTs) to measure airflow into and out of your lungs. The most common test, spirometry, requires you to blow into a device that can measure the speed of the air.
Doctors don’t typically perform breathing tests in children under 5 years of age. It’s difficult to get an accurate reading. Instead, they may prescribe asthma medicines to your child and wait to see if symptoms improve. If they do, your child likely has asthma.
For adults, your doctor may prescribe a bronchodilator or other asthma medication if test results indicate asthma. Discover which types of doctors, from pediatricians to pulmonologists, who are able to diagnose asthma.
If symptoms improve with the use of this medication, your doctor will continue to treat your condition as asthma.
Because researchers have yet to identify the exact cause of asthma, it’s challenging to know how a person can prevent the inflammatory condition.
However, more information is known about preventing asthma attacks. These strategies include:
- Avoiding triggers. Steer clear of chemicals, smells, or products that have caused breathing problems in the past.
- Reducing exposure to allergens. If you’ve identified allergens, such as dust or mold, that trigger an asthma attack, avoid them as best you can.
- Getting allergy shots. Allergen immunotherapy is a type of treatment that may help alter your immune system. With routine shots, your body may become less sensitive to any triggers you encounter.
- Taking preventive medication. Your doctor may prescribe medicine for you to take on a daily basis. This medicine may be used in addition to the one you use in case of an emergency.
Your doctor can help you put an asthma action plan in place so that you know which treatments to use and when. Get more information on asthma attack plans and other prevention techniques here.
Diagnosing asthma in children is difficult. Their airways are already small due to their size. Common childhood illnesses such as head and chest colds can further inflame the tissues in these airways. That can make detecting an underlying breathing problem such as asthma hard.
Children with asthma may exhibit symptoms such as:
- difficulty eating or sucking
- panting during activities that shouldn’t leave them winded
- a nagging cough
- coughing, especially at night
- labored breathing
- rapid breathing that pulls the skin around their ribs or neck tight
- frequent colds that settle into the chest
Among older children, the most common symptoms include:
- wheezing, or a squealing sound, especially when exhaling
- feeling winded after physical activities
- chest tightness
These symptoms are easy to mistake for coughs and colds, both of which young children are prone to in their earliest years.
However, if these symptoms are persistent, talk with your child’s doctor about the possibility of asthma. Find out more about the symptoms of — and treatments for — children with asthma.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma are commonly mistaken for one another. They result in similar symptoms, including wheezing, coughing, and trouble breathing. However, the two conditions are quite different.
COPD is an umbrella term used to identify a group of progressive respiratory diseases that include chronic bronchitis and emphysema. These diseases cause reduced airflow due to inflammation in the airways. These conditions may worsen over time too.
Asthma can occur at any age, with a majority of diagnoses coming in childhood. Most people with COPD are at least 45 at the time of their diagnosis.
Over 40 percent of people with COPD also have asthma, and the risk for having both conditions increases with age.
It’s not clear what causes asthma, but we know that asthma attacks are the result of exposure to triggers such as physical activity or smells. These triggers can make breathing problems worse.
The goal of treatment for both asthma and COPD is to reduce symptoms so you can maintain an active lifestyle. Compare and contrast the different treatments used for asthma and COPD.
In addition to using maintenance medications, you can take steps each day to make yourself healthier and reduce your risk for asthma attacks. These include:
- Eating a healthier diet. Eating a healthy, balanced diet can improve your overall health, which may reduce the risks for asthma attacks. In that same vein, research suggests that eliminating processed foods may cut down on the risk of an asthma attack.
- Maintaining a healthy weight. Asthma tends to be worse in overweight and obese individuals. Losing weight is healthy for your heart, your joints, and your lungs.
- Quitting smoking. Irritants such as cigarette smoke can trigger asthma. You also put yourself at greater risk for COPD.
- Exercising regularly. Activity can trigger an asthma attack, but regular exercise may actually reduce the risk of breathing problems. Aerobic activity can strengthen your lungs and help you breathe better.
- Managing stress. Stress can be a trigger for asthma symptoms. Stress can also make stopping an asthma attack more difficult. Find healthy ways to reduce your stress and anxiety.
Nutrient-rich foods are vital to reducing symptoms, but food allergies can trigger asthma symptoms. Get informed on the connection between what you eat and your asthma symptoms.
A combination of environmental and genetic factors may contribute to the development of asthma. These risk factors for asthma include:
- Race. African-Americans and Puerto Ricans are more likely to develop asthma.
- Sex. Boys are more likely than girls to be diagnosed with asthma in childhood. However, in adulthood, women are more frequently diagnosed with the condition than men.
- Genetics. Children born to parents with the disease are more likely to develop it.
- Health history. People diagnosed with certain conditions, including allergies and eczema, are more likely to also be diagnosed with asthma.
- Age. Asthma can and does develop in adulthood, but the majority of asthma diagnoses are made while a person is still in childhood.
- Environment. People living in an area with heavy pollution are at a greater risk for developing asthma.
- Weight. Children and adults who are overweight or obese are more likely to develop asthma.
Other factors also increase your odds of being diagnosed with asthma. Find out more about these risk factors here.
Asthma affects 8 percent of women in their childbearing years, so it’s no wonder that asthma is one of the most common diseases that pregnant women can experience.
There’s no way to know how pregnancy will affect asthma. Some expecting mothers don’t experience a change. For others, their pregnancy may make their asthma better or even worse. If symptoms worsen, it’s more likely to happen in your second and third trimesters.
Some women also experience the onset of asthma while they’re pregnant.
If you have asthma, you should work closely with your doctor during your pregnancy to reduce risks for you and your growing fetus.
You may need to adjust the dosage of your maintenance medicine. Your doctor may also want to change the emergency medicine you keep on hand in the event that your symptoms are worse than they were before your pregnancy.
It remains vital that you treat your asthma while you’re pregnant. Untreated asthma can lead to complications, such as:
If your baby isn’t getting enough oxygen, they can also experience health complications. Understand the connection between pregnancy and asthma, and learn how you can prevent the risks.
At the moment. there’s no cure for asthma. However, there are many effective treatments that can decrease asthma symptoms. Lifestyle changes and medications can also improve your quality of life.
The key is to become educated. The more you know, the better your lung function will be and the better you’ll feel. Talk with doctor about:
- your type of asthma
- what triggers your symptoms
- what daily treatments are best for you
- your treatment plan for an asthma attack