What is asthma?

Asthma is a chronic lung disease that occurs when the airways become inflamed, making it difficult to breathe.

Asthma is becoming more common in recent years and currently affects approximately 25 million people in the United States.

Although asthma can’t be cured, symptoms can be managed so you can live a full life.

Common related conditions

Causes of asthma

Although the exact cause of asthma is not known, experts claim genetic and environmental factors contribute.

Triggers that could lead to an asthma attack include:

  • Respiratory infections that occur during childhood
  • Exposure to airborne allergens or viral infections when immune system weaker
  • Cold air
  • Stressful situations 
  • Air pollutants
  • Extreme physical exertion
  • Medications such as beta-blockers, aspirin or ibuprofen
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease

Risk factors for asthma

People who are at higher risk of asthma include:

  • People who have a parent or sibling who also has asthma
  • People who are overweight
  • Smokers or people who have been exposed to secondhand smoke
  • People who have other allergic conditions such as allergies, eczema or atopic dermatitis
  • Girls are more likely to develop asthma than boys
  • Children are more likely to develop asthma

Symptoms of asthma

Symptoms of asthma present when the bronchial tubes become inflamed and vary from person to person.

Some people have chronic asthma, where they experience symptoms daily, and some people only experience periodic asthma attacks.

Wheezing is the most common symptom of asthma.

Other symptoms include:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Pain or tightness in the chest
  • Coughing
  • Difficulty speaking

Diagnosis of asthma

Asthma can be diagnosed by your primary care provider in a physical exam. Your doctor will take a full medical history, evaluate your symptoms and perform diagnostic testing such as:

Lung function test

A lung function test measures the amount of air you breathe in and out as well as how fast you can blow it out. The goal of the test is to determine how well the lungs are working.

To evaluate whether medication has any impact on the results of the test, you may be given medication and asked to repeat the test. If your results improve after taking the medication, you may be diagnosed with asthma.

Allergy testing

Allergy testing can help determine if allergens (and which ones) are causing your symptoms.


A bronchoprovocation is a test that measures lung function as you exercise.

Chest x-ray

A chest x-ray can produce images that show the lungs. This test can help determine if there is anything in the lungs that could be causing your symptoms.

Electrocardiogram (EKG)

An EKG can show more detailed images of the lungs and airways to determine if other conditions are causing your symptoms.

Mild cases of asthma may be treated by a primary care provider, but if your case is more serious, you may be referred to an asthma specialist for follow-up and treatment.

Treatment for asthma

There is no cure for asthma, but symptoms can be managed with appropriate care. The goal of treatment is to provide symptom relief so asthma sufferers can live a healthy life. Your doctor will evaluate your case to determine the best treatment plan for your case.

Treatment options include:


Inhalers, if used properly, are effective in treating asthma. There are two types of inhalers:

  • Metered dose inhalers &mash; a burst of medicine is delivered to the airways via an aerosol canister
  • Dry powdered inhaler — a dry powder medicine is delivered to the airways via an inhaler


Nebulizers are effective for patients who are not able to use an inhaler correctly. The machine will turn the asthma medication into a mist that can be inhaled.


Your doctor will likely recommend either a long-term control medication or quick reliever medication to control your symptoms. It is important to work closely with your physician to ensure you are taking the medication correctly.

Long-term medications provide long-term symptoms relief. They include:

  • Inhaled corticosteroids
  • Inhaled long-acting beta agonists
  • Combination inhaled medicines
  • Omalizumab
  • Leukotriene modifiers 
  • Cromolyn sodium
  • Theophylline
  • Oral corticosteroids

Quick reliever medications are used for patients who suffer from acute asthma attacks. These medications work quickly to relax muscles in the airways which will allow you to breathe easier. These medications should only be used when you have asthma symptoms.Quick-relief medicines include:

  • Short-acting beta agonists — these inhaled medicines are the first-line therapy for fast relief of asthma symptoms.
  • Anticholinergics — inhaled medication that opens the airways and reduces mucous production. These medications do not work as quickly as short-acting beta agonists.
  • Combination quick relief medicines — these medications combine both the anticholinergic and short-acting beta agonist and comes in both inhaler or nebulizer forms.

Treatments alone may not be effective in preventing future asthma attacks. It is important to avoid anything that will trigger an attack.

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