Asthma is an inflammatory disease of the airways to the lungs. It makes breathing difficult and can make some physical activities challenging or even impossible.
To understand asthma, it’s necessary to understand a little about what happens when you breathe. Normally, with every breath you take, air goes through your nose or mouth, down into your throat, and 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 swells and the muscles around them tighten. Mucus then fills the airways, further reducing the amount of air that can pass through.
These conditions can then bring on an asthma “attack,” which is the coughing and tightness in the chest that’s typical of asthma.
The most common symptom of asthma is wheezing. This is a squealing or whistling sound that occurs when you breathe.
Other asthma symptoms may include:
- coughing, especially at night, when laughing, or during exercise
- tightness in the chest
- shortness of breath
- difficulty talking
- anxiousness or panic
- chest pain
- rapid breathing
- frequent infections
- trouble sleeping
Although asthma is especially common in children, many people don’t develop asthma until they are adults.
No single cause has been identified as source for asthma. Instead, researchers believe it’s caused by a variety of factors. These factors include:
- Genetics. If a parent or sibling has asthma, you’re more likely to develop it.
- History of viral infections. People with a history of severe viral infections during childhood, such as respiratory syncytial virus infection (RSV), may be more likely to develop the condition.
- Hygiene hypothesis. This theory explains that when babies aren’t exposed to enough bacteria in their early months and years, their immune systems don’t become strong enough to fight off asthma and other allergic conditions.
Treatments for asthma fall into four primary categories:
- quick relief medications
- long-term control medications
- a combination of quick relief and long-term control medications.