Asthma is a condition in which your airways narrow and swell and may produce extra mucus. This can make breathing difficult and trigger coughing, a whistling sound (wheezing) when you breathe out and shortness of breath.
For some people, asthma is a minor nuisance. For others, it can be a major problem that interferes with daily activities and may lead to a life-threatening asthma attack.
Asthma symptoms vary from person to person. You may have infrequent asthma attacks, have symptoms only at certain times — such as when exercising — or have symptoms all the time.
Asthma signs and symptoms include:
Shortness of breath
Chest tightness or pain
Wheezing when exhaling, which is a common sign of asthma in children
Trouble sleeping caused by shortness of breath, coughing or wheezing
Coughing or wheezing attacks that are worsened by a respiratory virus, such as a cold or the flu
Signs that your asthma is probably worsening include:
The need to use a quick-relief inhaler more often
For some people, asthma signs and symptoms flare up in certain situations:
Exercise-induced asthma, which may be worse when the air is cold and dry
Occupational asthma, triggered by workplace irritants such as chemical fumes, gases or dust
Allergy-induced asthma, triggered by airborne substances, such as pollen, mold spores, cockroach waste, or particles of skin and dried saliva shed by pets (pet dander)
Severe asthma attacks can be life-threatening.
Signs of an asthma emergency include:
Rapid worsening of shortness of breath or wheezing
No improvement even after using a quick-relief inhaler
Shortness of breath when you are doing minimal physical activity
If you think you have asthma and you have frequent coughing or wheezing that lasts more than a few days or any other signs or symptoms of asthma, see your doctor.
Treating asthma early may prevent long-term lung damage.
Don’t take more medication than prescribed without consulting your doctor first. Overusing asthma medication can cause side effects and may make your asthma worse.
Asthma often changes over time. Meet with your doctor regularly to discuss your symptoms and make any needed treatment adjustments.
Causes of asthma
It isn’t clear why some people get asthma and others don’t, but it’s probably due to a combination of environmental and inherited (genetic) factors.
Exposure to various irritants and substances that trigger allergies (allergens) can trigger signs and symptoms of asthma. Asthma triggers are different from person to person and can include:
Airborne allergens, such as pollen, dust mites, mold spores, pet dander or particles of cockroach waste
Respiratory infections, such as the common cold
Air pollutants and irritants, such as smoke
Certain medications, including beta blockers, aspirin, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) and naproxen sodium (Aleve)
Strong emotions and stress
Sulfites and preservatives added to some types of foods and beverages, including shrimp, dried fruit, processed potatoes, beer and wine
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a condition in which stomach acids back up into your throat
A number of factors are thought to increase your chances of developing asthma. They include:
Having a blood relative with asthma, such as a parent or sibling
Having another allergic condition, such as atopic dermatitis — which causes red, itchy skin — or hay fever which causes a runny nose, congestion and itchy eyes
Being a smoker
Exposure to secondhand smoke
Exposure to exhaust fumes or other types of pollution
Exposure to occupational triggers, such as chemicals used in farming, hairdressing and manufacturing
Asthma complications include:
Severe asthma can lead to disrupt sleep
Severe asthma can lead to emergency room visit and hospitalization
Severe asthma can cause air way remodeling
Severe asthma can lead to respiratory failure and even death.
Asthma can permanently narrow the tubes that carry air to and from your lungs (bronchial tubes) which affects how well you breathe.
According to new research, active asthma can double the risk of a cardiovascular event by 60% over 10 years. And inhaler, it turns out, can both rescue and endanger.
There’s no way to prevent asthma.
Asthma is an ongoing condition that needs regular monitoring and treatment. Taking control of your treatment can make you feel more in control of your life.
Find out what causes or worsens your asthma, and take steps to avoid those triggers.
Monitor your breathing. You may learn to recognize warning signs of an impending attack, such as slight coughing, wheezing or shortness of breath.
Identify and treat attacks early. If you act quickly, you’re less likely to have a severe attack.