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Conditions InDepth: Asthma

Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disease that affects the lining of the airways. In some cases, it is also a chronic allergic condition.

The airways become swollen and narrowed and they produce extra mucus. The narrowing causes contractions. Episodes of worsening asthma called asthma attacks occur when the narrowing worsens.

Inflamed Bronchus in the Lungs
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During an asthma attack, symptoms may range from a mild whistling or hissing sound as you breathe to severe obstruction of the airways, potentially causing a life-threatening inability to breathe. Cough-variant asthma begins as persistent, chronic cough without shortness of breath. Although asthma can be serious, there are many ways to prevent and control symptoms.

The underlying cause of asthma is two part: 1) inflammation in the lining of the lung, and 2) structural changes in the lung due to inflammation and narrowing of air passages. Factors in indoor and outdoor environments, called triggers, can make asthma symptoms worse and cause asthma attacks in people who have asthma.

Known asthma triggers include:

  • Allergens:
    • Pollen
    • Mold
    • Animal dander—fine scales from skin, hair, or feathers
    • Dust mites
    • Cockroaches
  • Viral infections of the respiratory tract
  • Irritants:
    • Strong odors or sprays
    • Chemicals, including preservatives containing sulfites and dyes which are in many foods
    • Air pollutants, especially ozone, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide
    • Changing weather conditions, especially cold air and dry air
  • Tobacco smoke or wood smoke
  • Drugs, including aspirin and other over-the-counter painkillers in individuals with a special type of asthma
  • Exercise, especially when exertion occurs in a cold environment
  • Emotional stress
What are the risk factors for asthma?What are the symptoms of asthma?How is asthma diagnosed?What are the treatments for asthma?Are there screening tests for asthma?How can I reduce my risk of asthma?What questions should I ask my doctor?What is it like for a child to live with asthma?What is it like for an adult to live with asthma?Where can I get more information about asthma?

Revision Information

  • Asthma overview. American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology website. Available at: http://www.aaaai.org/conditions-and-treatments/asthma.aspx . Accessed October 14, 2013.

  • Asthma. American Lung Association website. Available at: http://www.lung.org/lung-disease/asthma . Accessed October 14, 2013.

  • Asthma overview. Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America website. Available at: http://www.aafa.org/display.cfm?id=8&sub=14 . Accessed October 14, 2013.

  • Asthma in adults and adolescents. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://dynamed.ebscohost.com/about/about-us . Updated August 19, 2013. Accessed October 14, 2013.

  • Asthma exacerbation in adults and adolescents. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://dynamed.ebscohost.com/about/about-us . Updated June 7, 2013. Accessed October 14, 2013.

  • Understanding asthma. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases website. Available at: http://www.niaid.nih.gov/topics/asthma/understanding/Pages/default.aspx . Accessed October 14, 2013.