All About Asthma
What is Asthma
Asthma is a chronic lung disease that inflames and narrows the airways, making it difficult to breathe. It is one of the most common long-term diseases for children, but also affects millions of adults. In the United States, more than 25 million people are known to have asthma, and about seven million of them are children.
Asthma causes recurring periods of wheezing, chest tightness, shortness of breath, and coughing. The coughing often occurs at night or early in the morning.
The cause of asthma is unknown and there is currently no cure. It can be managed, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people with asthma develop an Action Plan.
What are the symptoms of asthma?
- Shortness of breath or trouble breathing
- Tightness or pain in the chest
What causes asthma?
No one knows exactly what causes asthma, but health care providers know asthma attacks are sometimes triggered by:
- Allergens, like pollen, mold, animal dander and dust mites
- Occupational hazards
- Tobacco smoke
- Air pollution
- Airway infections
When the airways have been inflamed for a long time, they become extra sensitive. This means that they react faster and more strongly to the various triggers above.
Asthma tends to be hereditary, which means that individuals are more likely to develop asthma if someone in their family already has it. Children with eczema or food allergies are more likely to develop asthma. Women are more likely to have asthma than men, but boys are more likely to have asthma than girls.
What is an asthma attack?
An asthma attack occurs when symptoms rapidly become more severe. During an asthma attack, airways become red, swollen, and more narrow. Tightening of the muscles that surround the airways (also called bronchoconstriction) makes them even narrower. This tightening can happen very quickly, depending on the type of trigger and underlying inflammation. Plus, the airways make more mucus, which can plug up or partly block the airways.
What causes an asthma attack?
Some causes and triggers are common to all people with asthma, and some are more individual, especially allergens. There are very big differences between individuals in how readily and how severely they react to different triggers. The severity of the symptoms can differ in the same person at different times, and the effects of treatment can also vary. Asthma does not stay the same and will change over time. However, if asthma is properly treated, there can be longer periods without symptoms or attacks.
A number of different triggers can cause asthma symptoms or start an asthma attack. To view a list of these triggers, visit the CDC's page on asthma triggers.
Recognizing an Asthma Attack
If someone appears to be having an asthma attack, try to communicate with them to confirm it is an asthma attack and not something else. Call an ambulance immediately if they can't breathe or speak, lose consciousness, are coughing, or if their lips or nails are turning blue. You should also call an ambulance if the person doesn't have their inhaler, if their inhaler doesn't help alleviate their symptoms after ten puffs, or if the inhaler helps initially but their symptoms worsen afterwards.
It's important to remain calm. The person having the asthma attack may feel frightened or start to panic. Use positive, reassuring language and do the following:
- Ask if they have an Asthma Action Plan. Many people with asthma have a plan for flare-ups and attacks. They may be able to tell you how to help, where their medication is, and if or when to call for emergency services. They may also be able to tell you what has helped relieve their symptoms in the past, such as getting away from certain triggers or going to a calm, cool area.
- Call or ask someone to call an ambulance so you can stay with the victim to keep them calm. If you have access to a car, drive them to the hospital.
- Encourage the individual to sit up straight, breathe slowly and continue to use an inhaler if they have one.
- If you cannot move the person, have them breathe through a scarf or sleeve to minimize how much irritant they inhale.
- If they can't speak or there's a language difference, get them to point or write down where their medicine/inhaler is. Find someone, a family member or friend, who can help communicate.
For more information on how to recognize and help treat asthma attacks, visit the National Institute of Health's asthma page. And for a full FAQ on asthma, including information on its types, whether exercise is a good idea, and more, visit the CDC's asthma page.
America Breathing Easier, the National Asthma Control Program
Asthma resources for healthcare professionals
Asthma resources for public health professionals
Asthma resources for schools and childcare providers