Asthma occurs when the airway that leads to your lungs is obstructed, inflamed, irritated, or any combination of the three.
During normal breathing, the bands of muscle that surround the airways are relaxed, and air moves freely. But in people with asthma, the bands of muscle surrounding the airways can tighten, and air cannot move freely. Asthmatics then become short of breath, and the air moving through the tightened airways causes a whistling sound known as wheezing.
People with asthma may also have red and swollen (inflamed) bronchial tubes. The inflammation may contribute to the long-term damage that asthma can cause to the lungs. Treating this inflammation is key to managing asthma.
The airways of people with asthma are extremely sensitive and tend to constrict due to even the slightest triggers such as pollen, animal dander, dust or fumes.
Asthma affects over 12 million Americans, including approximately 10% of children under age 18. Asthma may occur at any age, although it's more common in younger individuals (under age 40).
People who have a family history of asthma have an increased risk of developing the disease. Asthma is also more common in people who have allergies or who are exposed to tobacco smoke.
However, anyone can develop asthma at any time.
People with asthma have very sensitive airways that react to many different things in the environment called "triggers." Contact with these triggers cause asthma symptoms to start or worsen. The following are common triggers for asthma:
- Infections (colds, viruses, flu, sinus infection)
- Allergens such as pollens, mold spores, pet dander and dust mites
- Irritants such as strong odors from perfumes or cleaning solutions, air pollution,
- Tobacco smoke
- Exercise or exertion
- Weather -- changes in temperature and/or humidity, cold air
- Strong emotions such as anxiety, laughter or crying, stress
People with asthma experience symptoms when their airways tighten, swell up, or fill with mucus. Symptoms include:
- Coughing, especially at night
- Wheezing (a high-pitched whistling sound when breathing out)
- Shortness of breath
- Chest tightness, pain, or pressure
If you suspect that you may have asthma, see your doctor. He or she can run tests to determine if you have it. If a diagnosis is made, there are many treatments available to make you feel better and improve the underlying problems that caused the asthma.