Health Education: Asthma

For our asthma guide in its entirety, featuring information about the triggers of asthma, asthma management, and information about allergy, Download our “All About Asthma” PDF.

What is asthma?

Asthma is a chronic, inflammatory lung disease involving recurrent breathing problems. The characteristics are three airway problems:


  • Obstruction of the airway
  • Inflammation of the airway
  • Hyper-Responsiveness of the airway

What are the symptoms of asthma?

Asthma may resemble other respiratory problems such as emphysema, bronchitis, and lower respiratory infections. It is under-diagnosed — many people with the disease do not know they have it. Sometimes the only symptom is a chronic cough especially at night, or coughing or wheezing that occurs only with exercise. Some people think they have recurrent bronchitis, since respiratory infections usually settle in the chest in a person predisposed to asthma.

Why is asthma on the rise?

Some scientists theorize that the decline in serious illness may be one factor in the increase of allergic asthma. They believe it is possible that an under-utilized immune system may overreact to lesser irritants, inappropriately triggering the release of histamine and other inflammatory substances in the lungs.

Other researchers believe that the increased amount of time children are spending indoors is increasing their exposure to carpeting and other allergen-triggers.

What happens during an asthma attack?

People with asthma have acute episodes when the air passages in their lungs get narrower, and breathing becomes more difficult. These problems are caused by an oversensitivity of the lungs and airways.

  • Lungs and airways overreact to certain triggers and become inflamed and clogged
  • Breathing becomes harder and may hurt
  • There may be coughing
  • There may be a wheezing or whistling sound, which is typical of asthma. Wheezing occurs because:
  • Muscles that surround the airways tighten, the inner lining of the airways swells and pushes inward.
  • Membranes that line the airways secrete extra mucus
  • The mucus can form plugs that further block the air passages
  • The rush of air through the narrowed airways produces the wheezing sounds

What causes asthma?

The basic cause of the lung abnormality in asthma is not yet known, although healthcare professionals have established that it is a special type of inflammation of the airway that leads to:

  • Contraction of airway muscles
  • Mucus production
  • Swelling in the airways

It is important to know that asthma is not caused by emotional factors – as commonly believed years ago. Emotional anxiety and nervous stress can cause fatigue, which may affect the immune system and increase asthma symptoms or aggravate an attack. However, these reactions are considered to be more of an effect than a cause.

What are the risk factors for an asthma attack?

Although anyone may have an asthma attack, it most commonly occurs in:

  • Children and adolescents ages 5 to 17 years
  • Adults older than 65
  • People living in urban communities

Other factors include:

  • Family history of asthma
  • Personal medical history of allergies

Children most susceptible to asthma attacks include the following:

  • Children with a family history of asthma
  • Infants and other young children who when they develop a respiratroy infection, they also tend to have wheezing
  • Children who have allergies
  • Children who have exposure to tobacco smoke and other allergens prior to birth

How is asthma diagnosed?

To diagnose asthma and distinguish it from other lung disorders, physicians rely on a combination of medical history, physical examination, and laboratory tests:

  • To determine how well the lungs receive, hold, and utilize air
  • To monitor a lung disease
  • To monitor the effectiveness of treatment
  • To determine the severity of a lung disease
  • To determine whether the lung disease is restrictive (decreased airflow) or obstructive (disruption of airflow)

Continued in our All About Asthma Guide.

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