Asthma is a common chronic condition that affects your lungs. Asthma involves inflammation of your bronchial tubes (airways), which can make them more sensitive to irritants and allergens. This can lead to various respiratory symptoms, such as coughing and wheezing.

Respiration is the act of exchanging gases (oxygen and carbon dioxide) when you breathe in and out. Your respiratory system consists of the organs that help support these actions.

While asthma primarily involves your lungs, it may also affect other parts of your respiratory system. Learn more about the effects of asthma on your respiratory system and how you may be able to prevent and manage the associated symptoms.

What are the parts of the respiratory system?

Your respiratory system consists of two parts: your upper and lower respiratory tract. When you breathe, each component helps get air in and out of your lungs.

Your upper respiratory tract includes your:

  • nose
  • nasal cavity
  • sinuses
  • mouth
  • throat
  • voice box

Your lower respiratory tract consists of your trachea (windpipe) and lungs. It also includes components inside your lungs, such as:

  • bronchi (large airways)
  • bronchioles (small airways)
  • alveoli (air sacs)

Your lungs are responsible for taking in oxygen and breathing out carbon dioxide. When you have asthma, your lungs may not function as they should, leading to several effects. While these may happen any time of day, asthma exacerbations occur mostly at night and in the early morning.

Swelling in airways

Airway inflammation, or swelling, is a key effect of asthma on your lungs. Both short-term and long-term inflammation can make it harder to breathe. This can lead to other common asthma symptoms, such as wheezing and coughing.

Tightening of muscles

Airway inflammation can also make the muscles around your airways constrict (tighten). It’s also common to feel tightness in your chest during an asthma attack.

Extra mucus production

Tightening can cause mucus to remain trapped in your airways. You may cough more as a way to get rid of it. Coughing is also typically worse at night, as well as early in the morning after waking up.

Gas exchange

With asthma, you may experience shortness of breath. The tightened muscles around your airways cause them to narrow. This makes it more difficult to take in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide.

the effects of asthma in the airways of your lungsShare on Pinterest
Illustrated by Jason Hoffman

Asthma primarily affects your lungs. Still, the effects of asthma can extend beyond your lower respiratory tract into other parts of your respiratory system. Consider other key parts below:

Trachea (windpipe)

Your windpipe is a smooth muscle that plays a crucial role in delivering oxygen to your lungs. This key airway may become inflamed and constricted from asthma, leading to coughing and breathing difficulties.

Larynx (voice box)

Your voice box is a small but complex portion of your lower respiratory tract. It connects your throat to your windpipe. Your larynx houses your vocal cords (or vocal folds), which create sound as you pass air through them.

Some people with asthma may experience vocal cord dysfunction that may cause coughing, wheezing, and breathing difficulties. While asthma and vocal cord dysfunction share similar symptoms, they’re separate conditions.

Pharynx (throat)

Right before an asthma attack, you may notice that your throat feels itchy. This can cause you to cough more. If you have mucus buildup from asthma, you may also find yourself having to clear your throat more than usual.

Mouth

Your mouth is one of the ways your lungs can receive oxygen and get rid of carbon dioxide. You may find it harder to breathe during an asthma attack, including shortness of breath and wheezing sounds coming out of your mouth.

Also, if you’re currently taking asthma medications, you may experience dry mouth.

Nose

Your nose is another passageway for air going in and out of your lungs through two nasal cavities. If you have allergic rhinitis (hay fever) and asthma, you may experience additional symptoms such as a runny nose, nasal congestion, and postnasal drip.

Your lungs are located close to other organs that asthma may affect, including your esophagus and heart.

As such, asthma is also associated with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). With GERD, your stomach acid travels back up to your esophagus, causing symptoms of acid reflux and heartburn. It may even trigger asthma symptoms, such as coughing.

Also, during a severe asthma attack, your body may not get the oxygen it needs to function. This may lead to potential damage to your organs that rely on oxygen.

Researchers also believe that asthma may increase your risk of cardiovascular (heart) disease. A 2017 meta-analysis suggests that people assigned female at birth with asthma have an even higher risk.

What causes an asthma attack?

An asthma attack occurs as a result of your exposure to certain triggers that cause airway inflammation. Not everyone has the same asthma triggers, but some of the most common ones include:

Other possible asthma triggers include:

There’s no cure for asthma, but you can limit your number of exacerbations and their effects on your respiratory system. According to a 2017 review, there are four essential components to this:

  • Education: Knowing more about asthma and how exacerbations affect you can improve your control of the condition.
  • Monitoring: Regularly monitor how your treatments are working. This can help doctors or healthcare professionals make any necessary adjustments to your treatment plan.
  • Avoiding triggers: Limit your exposure to factors that trigger your asthma.
  • Medication: This may involve both quick-relief and long-term controller medications.

Left uncontrolled, asthma could potentially lead to airway remodeling. This means that frequent flare-ups have caused scarring in your lungs. Airway remodeling can also make your asthma medications less effective over time.

Also, if you have GERD, you may be able to reduce the symptoms and associated triggers of asthma by doing the following:

  • Avoid spicy and fatty foods or others that trigger reflux.
  • Eat smaller meals.
  • Avoid meals within a few hours of bedtime.
  • Consider taking over-the-counter or prescription heartburn medications such as proton pump inhibitors.

While asthma commonly develops during childhood, this chronic lung disease may occur at any age. It’s characterized by airway inflammation and constriction. These effects can lead to various respiratory symptoms, such as coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath.

If you suspect you have undiagnosed or uncontrolled asthma, talk with a doctor about next steps. Management and treatment can help reduce the effects of asthma on your respiratory system, as well as related complications such as GERD or heart problems.