Asthma

What is asthma?

Asthma is an inflammatory condition which affects the lungs' airways. It leads to sudden and reversible airway blockage and reduced airflow into the lungs. Air pollution and allergens may be triggers for asthma attacks. These attacks are characterized by wheezing, chest tightness, and shortness of breath. Asthma can be made worse by exposure to cigarette smoke, airway infections or by allergies. Symptoms are usually well managed with medication and by avoiding things that are known to make symptoms worse.

Risks

The main risk factors are genetic (having a blood relative with the condition) and environmental. Asthma affects both children and adults. Exposure to allergens, air pollution including smoking, or certain medications (like aspirin) may trigger an attack. Dust, animal hair, perfumes and stress are also triggers.

Symptoms

An asthma attack occurs when tiny muscles around the airways tighten, the airway lining becomes inflamed, and mucus builds up, causing even more airway restriction. Typical symptoms include shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing, and chest tightness.

Diagnosis

Diagnosis is usually made by assessing symptom patterns and with a measurement of airflow through the lungs, called spirometry.

Treatment

Asthma treatment consists of various medications with targeted effects. These might be taken as needed or, if a person suffers symptoms regularly, they might need to be taken every day. For example, inhaled corticosteroids aim to reduce the inflammation that leads to airway swelling and narrowing. Another medication called beta-agonists relax the small muscles that narrow airways during an asthma attack. Overall, the medications aim to open the airways, improve airflow, and make breathing easier.

Prevention

Prevention may be achieved by avoiding known allergens.