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HomeHealth A-Z Asthma
Asthma is a common childhood disease and is the number one reason for missed school days.



Definition of Asthma

Asthma is a lung condition in which constriction of the airways and mucus secretion can cause wheezing, coughing, and difficulty breathing. Asthma is often due to an allergic reaction.

Description of Asthma

Asthma affects millions of people worldwide, however few actually know what asthma really is, what causes it, who is at risk, the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention.

The general definition of asthma is a chronic disease that affects the airways and the tubes that carry air to the lungs. However, asthma is more than that. The disease affects and inflames the airways and makes them more sensitive than normal. The increased sensitivity and inflammation means the airways react stronger when an allergen is present. The strong reaction makes the airways more narrow resulting in wheezing and difficulty breathing. Some asthma attacks are not very strong and can be controlled with an inhaler while others are so severe they require emergency attention.

There is no cure for asthma however most individuals are able to live productive lives with treatment.

Causes and Risk Factors

Asthma is a common childhood disease and is the number one reason for missed school days. Approximately six million children in the United States suffer from asthma and 14 million adults do. Boys before puberty are more likely to have asthma but afterwards girls are more likely to get it.

The following risk factors are many times the cause of asthma in susceptible people. Risk factors for developing asthma include living in a big city where environmental factors may play a role in asthma, having parents with asthma, being exposed to secondhand smoke, obesity, GERD, low birth weight, exposure to chemicals, and frequent respiratory infections.

Symptoms of Asthma

The signs and symptoms of asthma may be severe or else they may be very mild. Some individuals will have severe attacks and wheeze or have a chronic cough while others will have very mild attacks with wheezing that does not seem much like asthma and then feel great in between attacks. Of course, there are warning signs when it comes to asthma attacks. Knowing and recognizing the warning signs is important because it will allow for quicker treatment.

  • Pain or tightness in the chest
  • Shortness of breath and/or wheezing
  • Lack of sleep due to shortness of breath and wheezing
  • Increased use of inhalers
  • Peak flow rates decrease

Diagnosis of Asthma

Diagnosing asthma is not as easy as one might think. That is because the signs and symptoms of asthma are similar to the symptoms of other illnesses like emphysema, congestive heart failure, and more. There are quite a few different tests used to diagnose asthma and it usually begins with a full physical exam as well as a lung test to see ho w much air goes in and out of your lungs.

The lung function tests are generally administered after the patient has taken a medication known as a bronchodilator. Individuals who have asthma will be able to breathe easier after they have taken this medicine while individuals suffering from other illnesses will not.

Treatment of Asthma

When it comes to treating asthma there are several types of medicine that help. Most people will actually use a combination of medicines to keep their asthma under control. These include a long term medicine as well as a fast acting inhaler for emergencies.

The long term medications for asthma are taken on a daily basis. These are used to help the individual prevent the occurrence of asthma attacks. The long term medicine in no way cures the asthma. These medications help reduce the inflammation in the airways so as to reduce the likelihood of an asthma attack.

On the other hand, the quick relief medications are used to stop an asthma attack in its tracks. Even with the use of long term medication individuals will still have attacks from time to time. It is on these occasions that the fast acting inhaler is so important.

Other treatments include the following:

  • Avoid pets and pet dander
  • Clean entire house weekly and wear a mask
  • Buy leather furniture instead of upholstered
  • Wash all linens in hot water once per week
  • Use only synthetic bedding
  • Use hardwood floors or tiles in your home
  • Use dustproof covers on pillows, mattress and box spring
  • Maintain low humidity in the home and use AC

Always use a monitor to chart lung function and keep a diary of the daily rates. That way when lung function begins to decrease by 20% of normal rates you will recognize it and know an asthma attack will occur soon. The way you know is that lung function begins to decrease a few days before an attack occurs. So, when rates are decreasing you can be prepared with a fast acting inhaler and avoid allergens and irritants in order to try and circumvent a really bad attack.

Some individuals do not respond well to anti-inflammatories, bronchodilators, and lifestyle changes in order to control their asthma. For these individuals occasionally immunotherapy is used. This process involves injecting the individual one to five times per week with allergens and gradually increasing the dosage in an attempt to desensitize the person to that particular allergen.

All of the above methods are good at treating asthma, but different people respond differently to the medications. As a result some individuals must try several different treatments or combination of treatments before finding the right one for their asthma.

Prevention of Asthma

Preventing asthma would be wonderful if it were possible, but it’s not. However, there are ways to reduce the likelihood of developing asthma for those who are predisposed to the condition. Healthy lifestyle changes like not smoking or living in the inner city where environmental factors play a role are important. Also, living in a very clean home with as few allergens as possible will help prevent or delay the onset of asthma. Using long term medicines and following the guidelines outlined above will help you prevent asthma attacks but they won’t prevent the disease.

External Resources

National Heart Lung and Blood Institute

Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America

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