What is asthma?
Asthma is a disease of the lungs. It is a disease that is much more common than it used to be. It now affects more
than 22 million people in the United States- more than twice as many as in the 1980’s. It is one of the most common
chronic diseases of childhood. It leads to 500,000 hospital admissions and nearly 5000 deaths every year.
The disease affects the large tubes of the lung called the bronchial tubes. With asthma, the bronchial tubes are hyper
responsive causing overreaction to allergens and irritants. This results in the tube lining becoming inflamed and the
muscles surrounding the bronchial tubes squeezing the airways, making the passages very narrow and difficult for the
air to go through. As the disease persists, the inflammation of the bronchial tube lining becomes worse and worse,
leading to increased mucus production and further narrowing of the airways. Over time, without treatment, the
damage on the bronchial tubes can become irreversible, leading to a permanent loss of lung function.
What are the symptoms of asthma?
Asthma symptoms vary from person to person. Common symptoms of asthma include:
- Shortness of breath, or trouble breathing- It may be a sensation of breathlessness, or not being able to get
enough air in or out of your lungs.
- Chest tightness-It may feel like something is squeezing or sitting on your chest.
- Wheezing- A high pitched whistling or squeaky sound when you breathe.
- Coughing- A dry, nonproductive, cough. It is often worse at night or early in the morning.
Symptoms can vary from person to person, and not every asthmatic will have all of those symptoms. Should one or
more of the above occur, from mild to extreme, contact your board certified allergist for an evaluation.
What causes asthma?
The exact cause of asthma is unclear. It appears that asthma is the result of a combination of factors, to include genes
and environment. Individuals whose parents have asthma have a higher risk of developing asthma themselves, so
genes seem to be a factor. One gene that appears to be associated with asthma is called ADAM33. However,
asthma also develops in individuals where there is no family of asthma, so genes are not the only factor in asthma.
Allergies play an important role in a large number of asthmatics. It is estimated that asthma is related to allergies in
up to 90% of children and 50% of adults. Allergies to dust mites, animals (cats, dogs), mold, grasses, and
cockroaches have been strongly associated with asthma. Some people have asthma attacks after heavy rains and
thunderstorms. This phenomenon, called "thunder-storm asthma" appears to be due to the breaking up of grass
pollen (such as rye grass) and mold spores (such as Alternaria) from the air drops as they hit the surface and the
winds which can disperse the pollen over great distances.
In some individuals, genes and allergies do not seem to have an important role in their asthma. In some women,
hormones seem to be an important factor. Their asthma can correlate with their menstrual cycle or menopause. In
some, pregnancy is associated with a dramatic improvement, or worsening of their asthma.
In up to 10% of asthmatics, aspirin and non steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) medications like ibuprofen (Advil,
Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve) can trigger asthma attacks.
Other things that can trigger asthma attacks include infections (such as colds and sinus infections), cigarette smoke, air
pollution (including ozone), cold air, strong odors (paint, perfumes…), and sulfites.
updated 6 March 2012
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Did you know?
23 million Americans suffer from
- 6.8 million children (1 in 10
school age child has asthma)
- 2 million Hispanics
Asthma accounts for 2 million
emergency visits each year
13 million school days are missed
each year due to asthma
Exposure to secondhand smoke
can cause asthma in pre-school
Asthma patients treated by allergy
& asthma specialists have
compared to those solely treated
- 95% fewer hospitalizations
- 77% fewer emergency room
- 77% fewer missed work
by primary care physicians.
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Interested in participating in a research study on asthma? Check out this page of the University of Pittsburgh Asthma Institute for a list of current research studies you may
be able to participate in.