What is asthma?
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Dr. Christopher M. Webber, MD
Allergist & Immunologist

Asthma is caused when inflammation is triggered in the lungs, which causes symptoms that include airway swelling, mucus production and a pinching or clamping down of muscles around the lungs. This is an actual immune system inflammation. To help this make sense, think of a time that you cut yourself: You have the cut itself, which will eventually scab over, and you have the surrounding area that is red, swollen and painful. This is true inflammation, which is caused by the immune system rushing to destroy any bacteria or dirt, for example, that surrounds the cut.

Now imagine this happening in your lungs. First, inflammation causes airway swelling and mucus production inside the lung. This can cause shortness of breath, oxygen problems, chest tightness and most asthma symptoms. Second, inflammation causes problems with the muscles that surround the airway. Muscles surround the airway of the lungs like paper towels around the cardboard center. Inflammation causes these muscles to close off or pinch down all of a sudden. This also causes wheezing, chest tightness and shortness of breath; this is usually the tipping point for an asthma attack.

In a perfect world, the lungs work beautifully. The diaphragm contracts, the lungs open up, we breathe in; the diaphragm relaxes, the lungs compress, we breathe out—all without a second thought. But for people with asthma, that natural response is far from guaranteed. Here's what happens:

When exposed to some kind of trigger (like smoke, pets, even cold air or exercise), an immune response causes the membranes that line the small airways in the lungs to become inflamed and swollen. This narrowing of the airways makes it difficult to breathe. To make matters worse, someone who can't breathe begins to panic, and that releases stress hormones, exacerbating the problem.

Of course, the scariest part of asthma is an attack. While asthma may be mild, an attack—a period of time when it's extremely difficult to breathe—may last for several minutes or even up to a few days. Severe attacks can be fatal, but that doesn't mean you need to live in fear of attacks. In fact, many treatments can help asthma patients enjoy life performing their normal activities.

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Asthma and chronic bronchitis are both lung diseases; however, they are separate types of lung disease. With both, you may have airway obstruction, mucous production and cough. There are a number of changes in the lungs during an asthma attack. The muscles that line the airway contract (tighten), which makes the airway narrow. The airway gets inflamed and secretions (fluid) are released into the airway. These changes make it difficult to breathe.

It is important to see your family physician if you suspect that you have one of these conditions in order to determine which, if any, you have. They are treated similarly but not exactly the same.

Dr. Paul M. Ehrlich, MD
Allergist & Immunologist

The lungs resemble an upside-down tree. The "trunk" is called the trachea, which leads from the throat into the chest. The trachea narrows into "branches" called bronchi. They in turn taper down into "twigs" called small bronchi and then bronchioles. Last, there are "leaves"—small sacs called alveoli where the blood exchanges carbon dioxide for fresh oxygen.

All the bronchi are surrounded by smooth muscle along with mucous glands. When the smooth muscle contracts, it leads to constriction, or narrowing, of the airways. This bronchoconstriction contributes to the airway obstruction known as asthma. When constriction is severe, the patient starts to feel that she cannot breathe. The lungs, in turn, may not be able to supply the blood with as much fresh oxygen as the body needs.

The other factors are the edema, or swelling, of the lining of the airways, which can damage it, as well as the increase in mucus.

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Asthma is an acute and chronic condition where small airways constrict and make breathing difficult. Wheezing is the most common symptom and sign of asthma, but also coughing is often a presenting symptom. Asthma is caused by allergies, infections, exercise and chronic lung disease. Excellent respiratory hygeine is crucial to keeping asthma at bay. Getting the correct diagnosis is key and avoiding insulting agents that cause the attacks is crucial.

UCLA Health
Administration Specialist

Asthma is a disease of the respiratory system that causes intermittent constriction of the airways due to inflammation in the lungs. As a result, the lining of the airways becomes swollen and muscles around the airways become tight, making it hard to breathe.

Asthma is a chronic disease that affects the airways in the 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 mucous that your body makes clogs up the airways even more.

An asthma attack may include coughing, chest tightness, wheezing and trouble breathing. Asthma attacks can be mild, moderate or serious—and even life threatening.

There’s no cure for asthma. People with asthma can manage their disease with medical care and prevent attacks by avoiding triggers.

The presence of the CDC logo and CDC content on this page should not be construed to imply endorsement by the U.S. government of any commercial products or services, or to replace the advice of a medical professional. The mark “CDC” is licensed under authority of the PHS.

Greenville Health System
Administration Specialist

Asthma, one of the most common chronic diseases in the U.S., affects more than 20 million adults and children. It is the most prevalent chronic pediatric disease, affecting six million children—almost 10 percent of the U.S. pediatric population.

A chronic inflammatory disease of the lower airways characterized by airflow obstruction, asthma is recurrent, reversible and typically reactive to specific triggers. Chronic inflammatory cell infiltration of the airways leads to airway hyper-responsiveness, respiratory symptoms and disease chronicity. Airway remodeling and fibrosis may develop in severe cases.

Although environmental interactions can influence disease phenotype, genetic predisposition to atopy (an immunoglobulin E-mediated response to aeroallergens, particularly house-dust mite, animal dander, cockroach allergen and Alternaria) is a strong predictive factor for asthma development. Viral respiratory infections, such as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and the more recently studied rhinovirus, also may play a role in asthma development and are common etiologies for acute asthma exacerbations.

The contents of this website are for informational purposes only and are not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Nor does the contents of this website constitute the establishment of a physician patient or therapeutic relationship. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

Intermountain Healthcare
Administration Specialist

Asthma is a problem with your breathing tubes. When you have asthma, your airways are inflamed much of the time. This inflammation can make breathing difficult for three reasons:

  • The inside lining of the airways swells inward. This narrows the space inside your airways.
  • The muscles around the airways tighten. This tightening is called bronchospasm (or bronchoconstriction). Bronchospasm also narrows your airways.
  • Your airways produce more mucus. Excess mucus clogs the airways, narrowing the space for air to pass through.

With your inflamed airways narrowed by swelling, bronchospasm and excess mucus, air doesn’t move as easily into and out of your lungs. It can be like trying to breathe through a narrow straw.

You should always take asthma seriously. It’s a chronic (long-lasting) condition that has no cure. Its symptoms can come on suddenly and get worse quickly—and may even become life-threatening. In fact, many deaths from asthma occur in people who previously thought that their asthma was mild.

You might not need to take medication every day. But you do need to take care of yourself to help avoid and treat dangerous flare-ups—and to keep living an active, healthy life every day

Dr. Michael T. Murray, ND
Naturopathic Medicine Specialist

Asthma is an allergic disorder characterized by spasms of the bronchi (the airway tubes), swelling of the mucous lining of the lungs and excessive production of thick, viscous mucus. The major concern with asthma is that it can lead to respiratory failure—the inability to breathe.

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RealAge
Administration Specialist

Asthma is a respiratory disease where the small vessels in the lungs are constricted, making breathing difficult and sometimes impossible. The cause of asthma is not known, but there is evidence that many factors, including both genetic and environmental factors, play a part. Like allergies, asthma tends to run in families.

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Asthma is marked by episodes of acute wheezing with shortness of breath, variable cough and reversible airflow obstruction. In patients with asthma, some irritant causes the muscles of the bronchial tubes to spasm and narrow, and there is a noted increase in the production of mucus. When these occur, the asthma patient experiences shortness of breath, coughing and wheezing. Asthma is almost always a medically-treatable or medically-controllable disease.

American Red Cross
Administration Specialist

Asthma is inflammation of the air passages that results in a temporary narrowing of the airways that carry oxygen to the lungs.

Piedmont Heart Institute
Administration Specialist

Asthma is a chronic disease in which the bronchial airways in the lungs become narrowed and swollen, making it difficult to breathe. Symptoms include wheezing, coughing, tightness in the chest, shortness of breath and rapid breathing. An attack may be brought on by pet hair, dust, smoke, pollen, mold, exercise, cold air or stress.

This answer is based on source information from National Cancer Institute.

Sigma Nursing
Administration Specialist

Asthma is a serious and chronic condition that causes the airways—or bronchi—to narrow, limiting the movement of air into the lungs. Someone with asthma can cough (often at night), wheeze and have trouble breathing. Inhaled allergens or cigarette smoke can cause an attack, as can exercise or stress. When certain substances trigger an asthma attack, cholinergic receptors in the airways respond by tightening the muscles. This process is called bronchoconstriction. It triggers a sequence of reactions in the body, which contributes to increased inflammation and mucus secretions. An asthma attack ends when the bronchi relax naturally or when medications such as anti-inflammatory drugs and bronchodilators help to reduce swelling and widen the airways.

An asthma attack—or an asthma exacerbation—can be very frightening. Asthma attacks may result in people feeling fatigued and disoriented and may even be life-threatening. If you see someone having an asthma attack and their skin begins to turn blue, you need to get them to the emergency room immediately. This is a sign that their oxygen supply is seriously depleted.

Asthma and chronic bronchitis are sometimes confused, as they can both cause airflow restriction, wheezing and/or coughing. Both conditions cause inflammation in the bronchial tubes. But asthma does not cause scarring in the lining of the bronchial tubes, and the negative effects of asthma can be completely reversed, either naturally or with proper treatment. The damage done by chronic bronchitis cannot be cured or reversed.

NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital
Administration Specialist

Asthma is a long-term disease that is characterized by narrowing, inflammation and hyper-responsiveness of the airways (the tubes that carry air into and out of your lungs). When the airways become inflamed, they become swollen and sensitive, meaning that they may react strongly when certain things are breathed in (such as cigarette smoke, dust or pet dander). The muscles around the airways tighten in response to the inflammation, causing the airways to have less space in them. In addition, the airways have more mucus than normal because they are inflamed, and this too can narrow the airways.

Dr. Adhuna C. Mathuria, MD
Allergist & Immunologist

Asthma is the inflammation of the airways that causes coughing, wheezing and tightness in the chest. Learn more from Adhuna Mathuria, MD, from StoneSprings Hospital Center in this video.

Continue Learning about Asthma

Asthma

Asthma

Asthma can be mild or severe, and is classified by how your breathing is affected. Most alarming are asthma attacks, episodes of severe coughing or wheezing where it is very hard to catch your breath; but asthma can also be a chro...

nic condition. Treatment is by anti-inflammatories and bronchodilators.
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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.