What is Asthma?

Asthma is a chronic condition characterized by inflammation of the airways in the lungs and by the spasm of muscles surrounding these airways. Inflammation occurs when irritated tissues swell and produce extra mucus, creating a condition known as bronchoconstriction. The combination of the two can cause constriction of or complete blockage of the airways and can initiate symptoms of an asthma attack. Symptoms of an asthma attack can include wheezing, coughing, chest tightness and shortness of breath. Asthma attacks may occur at anytime, but there are risk factors that can trigger an attack.

What causes asthma and asthma attacks?

No clear cause of asthma is known, but many risk factors have been linked to triggering asthma attacks. Individuals are more likely to have asthma if there is a family history of the disease. Several biological and environmental factors can trigger an asthma attack. Allergy plays a key role in about half of all asthma cases. After exposure to an allergen, the body releases chemicals that produce conditions associated with an attack. Common allergens in the environment are pollen, dust mites, cockroaches, bacteria, molds, animal hair and animal dander. Allergens also may originate from food and food additives. Studies have shown that common additives, such as monosodium glutamate (MSG), can cause an asthma attack.

Environmental pollutants are irritating to the lungs and can cause reactions similar to those caused by allergens. Common indoor pollutants associated with asthma include second-hand tobacco smoke, pesticides, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), formaldehyde and combustion gases. VOCs are present in many types of cleaning products, paints, glues and cosmetics. Formaldehyde is released from new furnishings, especially those made of particle board and pressed wood. Combustion gases are given off from space heaters, furnaces and fireplaces. Common outdoor pollutants associated with asthma include ozone, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen and sulfur compounds. The major sources of these pollutants are industrial and automobile emissions.

Bacterial infections frequently lead to asthma attacks. Because of the allergens they produce, yeasts also lead to allergic reactions that can cause an asthma attack. Emotional stress, panic and anxiety also may trigger an attack in certain individuals. Responses to emotional situations, such as laughing, crying or yelling, involve deep, rapid breathing that can trigger an attack.

Deep, rapid breathing during exercise also can trigger an asthma attack. Though breathing may become difficult and uncomfortable, exercise still benefits an asthmatic's overall health. By taking proper steps to avoid an attack, most asthmatics can fully participate in physical activities. Studies show that breathing cold air can lead to the swelling of airways. Other weather conditions, such as wind and rain, also create problems. Wind distributes pollen and other allergens into the air and rain can increase pollen and mold levels.

Is asthma like bronchitis?

Asthma is a reversible pulmonary disease, in that the airway constriction is a result of exposure to an allergen. Some people are born allergy prone (atopic) and some are not. Bronchitis is also a pulmonary disease but is not reversible. Over time, it results in progressive tissue damage and airway constriction. Bronchitis does not result from exposure to an allergen, although certain irritants (e.g., cigarette smoke or viral or bacterial infections) can produce an acute attack.

What are the symptoms of an asthma attack?

Symptoms that may suggest an asthma attack are frequent coughing and wheezing, chest tightness and shortness of breath. These symptoms may occur alone or in combination with other symptoms. A sign that asthma may be present, especially in children, is an excessive number of chest colds or episodes of pneumonia. Because these symptoms are common to other disorders, asthma is often difficult to diagnose. Recognizing and reducing the frequency and severity of symptoms can help prevent further damage to the lungs.

Is asthma a fatal illness?

An estimated 20 million Americans have asthma. Every year asthma accounts for 484,000 hospitalizations and 1.9 million emergency department visits, and approximately 4,000 persons die. Although asthma is not presently curable, changes in lifestyle and proper medication can reduce the frequency and severity of asthma attacks.

What can I do to control asthma?

You should see your physician for diagnosis and medical advice about your asthma condition. Other steps can be taken to control:

  • Keep your home clean.

  • Properly maintain heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems by regularly changing filters and cleaning humidifiers. Use high efficiency particle filters to remove particles from the indoor environment.

  • Install exhaust fans in the kitchen and bathrooms.

  • Relative humidity in the home should be kept at less than 60 percent. If humidifiers are used in the home, change the water daily and clean the tank weekly to prevent the growth of bacteria and mold.

  • Immediately replace or clean building materials that have been water damaged.

  • Avoid the use of pesticides in the home. Instead, prevent pests by removing water and food sources that attract them and blocking openings they use to get into the home. If pests are in the home, use nonchemical methods of control, such as traps, when possible.

  • Remove animals from the home. If this is not possible, bathe and groom pets weekly.

  • Do not allow cigarette smoking in your home. Avoid second-hand smoke as much as possible.

  • Use paints and solvents that contain VOCs sparingly and only with proper ventilation.

  • Asthmatics should limit time spent outdoors on high ozone days. State or local agencies will notify residents of ozone alerts.

  • Refrain from exercising outdoors during cold weather. During windy weather or after light rain, time outdoors should be limited because pollen counts may be high.

  • Develop an asthma action plan to help prevent symptoms and to recognize them if they occur and to know what medicine to take and when to take it.

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Illinois Department of Public Health
535 West Jefferson Street
Springfield, Illinois 62761
Phone 217-782-4977
Fax 217-782-3987
TTY 800-547-0466
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