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Asthma Overview

Asthma: What is it?

Asthma causes symptoms such as recurring periods of wheezing (a whistling sound when you breathe), chest tightness, shortness of breath, and coughing. The coughing frequently occurs at night or early in the morning.

Asthma can affect people of all ages, but it most frequently begins in childhood. More than 22 million people in The United States alone have been diagnosed with asthma. Nearly 6 million of these people are children.

It’s important to treat asthma symptoms when you first notice them. This will help prevent the symptoms from worsening and causing a severe asthma attack where the airways become obstructed. Severe asthma attacks may require emergency care, and they can cause death.

Understanding Asthma

People who have asthma have inflamed airways, and sometimes, blocked airways. This makes the airways swollen and very sensitive. The airways are tubes that carry air into and out of your lungs. They tend to react strongly to certain substances that are breathed in. These strong reactions are sometimes referred to allergies. While allergies do not cause asthma, they can be a common complication of asthma.

When the airways react, the muscles around them tighten. This muscle constriction causes the airways to narrow and less air flows into your lungs. The swelling also can worsen, making the airways even narrower. Cells in the airways may make more mucus than normal. Mucus is a sticky, thick liquid that can further narrow your airways and at times, obstruct the airways.

This chain reaction can result in asthma symptoms. Symptoms can happen each time the airways are irritated, and may become chronic in many individuals.

Sometimes symptoms are mild and go away on their own or after receiving minimal treatment. At other times, symptoms continue to get worse. When symptoms become more intense and/or additional symptoms appear, this is known as an asthma attack. Asthma attacks also are called flare-ups or exacerbations.

More on Asthma Symptoms


National Institutes of Health. 2008. What Is Asthma? (Online) accessed 01.30.10

The Medical Dictionary (Online) Asthma Definition (Online) accessed 01.30.10

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