Asthma Patient Information Fact Sheet

What is asthma?
Asthma is a chronic inflammatory condition of the airways. The airways in people with asthma are very sensitive and react to a variety of different stimuli. These reactions cause the airways to narrow or become completely blocked, preventing normal breathing. According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, asthma affects people of all ages, but it most often starts in childhood. In the United States, more than 25 million people are known to have asthma. Nearly 7 million of these people are children.

Asthma that is related to allergies (atopic asthma) often starts in childhood. The tendency to develop asthma runs in families and the chances of a child developing asthma are higher if both parents suffer from it. There is also a link between eczema, hay fever, and asthma and often children will have a combination of these conditions. Some children will grow out of asthma while others will not. Asthma can also be triggered by other factors that are not allergies. This type of asthma usually occurs in adults.

What are the symptoms of asthma?
The symptoms of asthma are caused by narrowing of the airways and usually manifest as a wheezing sound as air is forced through restricted airways. Additionally, mucus production may irritate the airways and cause coughing. The muscles of the airways contract in response to certain triggers such as inhaling cigarette smoke or exercising. In addition, the lining of the airways becomes red and inflamed and produces sticky mucus, further restricting the function of the airways. The chest will feel tight and breathing becomes difficult. Asthma symptoms may be mild and relieved fairly quickly with medication or they may be severe requiring urgent medical attention.

What causes asthma?
Asthma can be triggered by many different things. It is important for the child or person with asthma to learn which things commonly trigger their asthma and then try to avoid them.

  • Colds and other viral infections are among the most common triggers for asthma. Some children may only get asthma symptoms when they have an infection.
  • House-dust mites are more likely to affect older children and adults.
  • Allergy to pets such as cats and dogs is common, particularly in children.
  • Cigarette smoke significantly increases breathing problems in people with asthma. People with asthma should not smoke, and studies have proved that children whose mothers smoke are more likely to develop asthma.
  • In some people asthma is triggered by exercise. This is known as exercise-induced asthma.
  • Stress or strong emotions such as excitement or anger can also trigger asthma attacks in some children and adults.
  • Hormonal changes in women, such as pregnancy, can affect asthma.
  • Poor air quality and pollen in the air often affect asthma sufferers, as can cold, windy weather.