What is asthma?
Asthma is a condition that affects the airways. It makes it hard to breathe because the airways become swollen, produce too much mucus and the muscles around the airways tighten. Asthma can range from mild to severe and can be life threatening. It is recognized that in some families, inherited factors play a role in an individual’s risk for asthma. If a parent, or other close relative, has been diagnosed with asthma, a child may be at an increased risk for the condition; family history is important in the assessment and treatment of asthma. There is no cure for asthma, but it can be controlled by ongoing medical care, including a management plan developed by a health care provider, medication, avoidance of triggers and good health habits.
Origins of asthma – what causes asthma?
The exact cause of asthma is not known; there is not a single cause of asthma. The causes of asthma symptoms can vary for different people. Most often starts in childhood, and some researchers think genetic and environmental factors interact to cause asthma.
- Allergies – Exposure to allergens plays a causative role in the development of asthma.1
- Asthma runs in families – Children who have a parent or sibling with asthma are 3- to 6-times more likely to develop asthma than children without a family history of asthma.2
- Respiratory infections in childhood – Viral infections in infancy is a risk factor for development of asthma.3
How is asthma diagnosed?
It is often difficult for a doctor to make an asthma diagnosis, because symptoms are similar to other respiratory conditions, such as bronchitis and upper respiratory infection. A diagnosis of asthma is based on the following:
- Family history
- Lung function test, such as a spirometry test
What are the warning signs of an asthma attack?
Warning signs are symptoms that someone is having difficulty with asthma. Symptoms of an asthma attack may include:
- Shortness of breath
- Feeling tired or weak
- Itchy chin or throat
- Watery eyes
- Dark circles under eyes
- Medications are not working or do not last
- Increase in coughing or tightness in chest
- Inability to do usual activities
All of these symptoms do not necessarily occur during an asthma attack. Asthma attacks may occur anytime, but there are risk factors that can trigger an attack.
What can make asthma worse?
There are a number of different risk factors, also known as triggers that can make a person’s asthma worse. Not every person will be affected by the same things. Discover which triggers make your asthma worse and learn ways to reduce exposure and to prevent symptoms. Some examples of triggers are:
- Tobacco smoke
- Dust mites
- Viral infections
- Strong odors
- Animal dander
- Cold weather
How can I control my asthma?
Work with your health care provider to develop an action plan that includes what to do if you have an asthma attack. The plan should address the following:
- what happens during an asthma attack,
- what triggers an asthma attack and how to avoid these triggers,
- early recognition of warning signs and symptoms,
- list of medications,
- the importance of early treatment in response to asthma symptoms,
- how to keep an asthma diary, and
- how to use a peak flow meter (a peak flow meter is a hand-held device that measures how well air moves out of the lungs. It can be helpful in warning of an asthma attack and can help to identify triggers, to monitor a treatment plan and to assess the severity of asthma).
Recognize your symptoms early and know the difference between your controller medicine and your reliever medicine. Take your controller medication regularly, even when you are not having asthma symptoms.
Learn as much as possible about asthma and communicate with your health care provider and others involved in the management of your asthma. If your child has asthma, it is important for you to communicate with school staff, coaches, child care providers and others about his/her "Asthma Action Plan" (see PUBLICATIONS in the right-hand column).
- Gaffin JM, Phipatanakul W. The role of indoor allergens in the development of asthma. Curr Opin Allergy Clin Immunol. 2009; 9(2): 128-135.
- Liu T, Valdez R, Yoon P, Crocker D, Moonesinghe R, Khoury M. The association between family history of asthma and the prevalence of asthma among US adults: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 1999-2004. Genet Med. 2009; 11(5): 323-328.
- Kusel MM, de Klerk NH, Kebadze T, Vohma V, Holt PG, Johnston SL, Sly PD. Early-life respiratory viral infections, atopic sensitization, and risk of subsequent development of persistent asthma. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2007;119:1105–1110.