Asthma Information

Asthma Health Awareness


By Pamela Guggina, MD, MPH

What is asthma?

Asthma is a chronic disease of the lungs in which swelling and inflammation causes the airways to narrow. People with asthma may have no symptoms most of the time.  Sometimes they develop wheezing, a tight feeling in the chest and difficulty breathing. This is an asthma “attack” or exacerbation. These can last from hours to days.  In between attacks many people with asthma have no symptoms at all.

How common is asthma?

Asthma is quite common. According to the Centers for Disease Control about 27 million Americans have asthma. Just under 1/3 of those are children.

What are the symptoms of asthma?

The most common symptoms are wheezing and difficulty breathing, but asthma can also cause coughing and chest tightness.

What causes an asthma attack?

Everybody is a different, but common triggers are cigarette smoke, pollen, air pollution, some chemicals, animal dander, respiratory infections and exercise. Extreme weather conditions such as very cold weather or very hot, humid weather can cause attacks in some people.  Many people are able to control the number of attacks they have by avoiding exposure to their triggers.  People with exercise-induced asthma are often still able to exercise with the help of breathing medicines. Ultimately everyone has different triggers.  Identifying and avoiding triggers and taking medications as prescribed are important steps toward controlling attacks.

Who is at risk?

Some people are genetically predisposed to asthma.  People with allergies or eczema can be at higher risk for asthma. Obese people are also at higher risk.  Cigarette smoking can increase the risk for asthma. Children who are exposed to second hand smoke, such as from parents who smoke are at a much higher risk of getting asthma than those who are not exposed.

Is there a cure?

There is no definite cure, but there are several medications to control the symptoms and reduce the frequency of attacks.

How can the doctor tell if I, or my child has asthma?

Your doctor will ask questions about your symptoms, listen to your lungs and in some cases order special breathing tests. You may be asked to breathe into a tube called a spirometer.  This measures how well your lungs are working.

How is asthma treated?

Avoiding triggers can reduce attacks. In addition, medications are also used. Doctors sometimes prescribe medications that are taken daily make the attacks less frequent and less severe.  They also prescribe medications that are taken only when attacks occur.  These medications improve breathing during attacks. Every patient is a little different and must work with their physician to find the best combinations of medications for their asthma.

Can asthma cause serious health problems?

Asthma attacks can be serious enough to require hospitalization. In rare cases they can cause very serious illness, even death. This is why it is important to control the disease by avoiding triggers and taking medications as prescribed. All asthmatics should avoid smoking.  

Can asthma be prevented?

Not always, but the risk can be lessened by maintaining a normal body weight, avoiding smoking and second hand smoke and when possible, avoiding certain environmental triggers such as chemicals and pollutants. If you have concerns you should talk with your doctor about your specific situation.