What is asthma?

Asthma is a disease that affects your lungs.

Asthma (AZ-ma) is a chronic (long-term) lung disease that inflames and narrows the airways. Asthma causes recurring periods of wheezing (a whistling sound when you breathe), chest tightness, shortness of breath, and coughing. The coughing often occurs at night or early in the morning.

Asthma affects people of all ages, but it most often starts in childhood.

The primary cause of asthma is an inflammation of the airways in the lungs. This inflammation makes the airways smaller, which makes it more difficult for air to move in and out of the lungs.

The airways are tubes that carry air into and out of your lungs. People who have asthma have airways which are inflamed.  This inflammation makes the airways swollen and very sensitive. Therefore the airways of asthmatic people tend to react strongly to certain substances when they are breathed in.

When the airways react to a substance that is breathed in, the muscles around them tighten. This causes the airways to narrow.  The narrowing causes less air flow to the lungs.  Another factor is that the cells in the airways may make more mucus than normal. Mucus is a sticky, thick liquid that can further narrow your airways.

What are the signs and symptoms of asthma?

Signs that you might have asthma include:

Coughing Wheezing Shortness of breath Chest tightness

Coughing from asthma is often worse at night or early in the morning, making it hard to sleep.

Wheezing is a whistling or squeaky sound that occurs when you breathe.

Some people who have asthma say they can't catch their breath or they feel out of breath. You may feel like you can't get air out of your lungs.

Chest tightness may feel like something is squeezing or sitting on your chest.

What causes asthma?

Scientists are not really sure what the exact cause of asthma is. Researchers think a combination of factors (family genes and certain environmental exposures) interact to cause asthma to develop, most often early in life. These factors include:

An inherited tendency to develop allergies, called atopy Parents who have asthma Certain respiratory infections during childhood Contact with some airborne allergens or exposure to some viral infections in infancy or in early childhood when the immune system is developing

What Is an Asthma Attack?

An asthma attack happens in your body's airways, which are the paths that carry air to your lungs. As the air moves through your lungs, the airways become smaller, like the branches of a tree are smaller than the tree trunk. During an asthma attack, the sides of the airways in your lungs swell and the airways shrink. Less air gets in and out of your lungs, and mucus that your body produces clogs up the airways even more. The attack may include coughing, chest tightness, wheezing, and trouble breathing. Some people call an asthma attack an episode.

How is asthma treated?

The first part of asthma treatment is to avoid the things which can trigger your asthma.  Once you know what these factors are, you can take steps to control many of them.

Common asthma triggers include second hand smoke, dust mites, outdoor air pollution, cockroach allergen, pets, mold, strenuous physical exercise, bad weather, some medicines, freezing temperatures, foods and/or food additives.

Asthma is usually treated with asthma medications.

Asthma medicines can be taken in pill form, but most are taken using a device called an inhaler. An inhaler allows the medicine to go right to your lungs.

Long-Term Control Medicines

Most people who have asthma need to take long-term control medicines daily to help prevent symptoms. The most effective long-term medicines reduce airway inflammation.

These medicines are taken over the long term to prevent symptoms from starting. They don't give you quick relief from symptoms.

Inhaled corticosteroids

Inhaled corticosteroids are the preferred medicines for long-term control of asthma. These medicines are the most effective long-term control medicine to relieve airway inflammation and swelling that makes the airways sensitive to certain substances that are breathed in.

Reducing inflammation helps prevent the chain reaction that causes asthma symptoms. Most people who take these medicines daily find they greatly reduce how severe symptoms are and how often they occur.

Inhaled corticosteroids are generally safe when taken as prescribed. They're very different from the illegal anabolic steroids taken by some athletes. Inhaled corticosteroids aren't habit-forming, even if you take them every day for many years.

But, like many other medicines, inhaled corticosteroids can have side effects. Most doctors agree that the benefits of taking inhaled corticosteroids and preventing asthma attacks far outweigh the risks of side effects.

One common side effect from inhaled corticosteroids is a mouth infection called thrush. You can use a spacer or holding chamber to avoid thrush. A spacer or holding chamber is attached to your inhaler when taking medicine to keep the medicine from landing in your mouth or on the back of your throat.

Work with your health care team if you have any questions about how to use a spacer or holding chamber. Rinsing your mouth out with water after taking inhaled corticosteroids also can lower your risk of thrush.

If you have severe asthma, you may have to take corticosteroid pills or liquid for short periods to get your asthma under control. If taken for long periods, these medicines raise your risk for cataracts and osteoporosis (OS-te-o-po-RO-sis). A cataract is the clouding of the lens in your eye. Osteoporosis is a disorder that makes your bones weak and more likely to break.

Your doctor may have you add another long-term control asthma medicine to lower your dose of corticosteroids. Or, your doctor may suggest you take calcium and vitamin D pills to protect your bones.

Other long-term control medicines:
Inhaled long-acting beta2-agonists. These medicines open the airways and may be added to low-dose inhaled corticosteroids to improve asthma control. An inhaled long-acting beta2-agonist shouldn't be used alone. Leukotriene modifiers. These medicines are taken by mouth. They help block the chain reaction that increases inflammation in your airways. Cromolyn and nedocromil. These inhaled medicines also help prevent inflammation and can be used to treat asthma of mild severity. Theophylline. This medicine is taken by mouth and helps open the airways.

If your doctor prescribes a long-term control medicine, take it every day to control your asthma. Your asthma symptoms will likely return or get worse if you stop taking your medicine.

Long-term control medicines can have side effects. Talk to your doctor about these side effects and ways to monitor or avoid them.

Quick-Relief Medicines

All people who have asthma need a quick-relief medicine to help relieve asthma symptoms that may flare up. Inhaled short-acting beta2-agonists are the first choice for quick relief.

These medicines act quickly to relax tight muscles around your airways when you're having a flareup. This allows the airways to open up so air can flow through them.

You should take your quick-relief medicine when you first notice your asthma symptoms. If you use this medicine more than 2 days a week, talk with your doctor about how well controlled your asthma is. You may need to make changes in your asthma action plan.

Carry your quick-relief inhaler with you at all times in case you need it. If your child has asthma, make sure that anyone caring for him or her and the child's school has the child's quick-relief medicines. They should understand when and how to use them and when to seek medical care for your child.

You shouldn't use quick-relief medicines in place of prescribed long-term control medicines. Quick-relief medicines don't reduce inflammation.

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