Asthma is a chronic, inflammatory disease of the lungs in which the airways become sensitive to allergens (any substance that triggers an allergic reaction) and irritants (irritating things in the air). Several things happen to the airways when a person is exposed to certain triggers:
All of these factors will cause the airways to narrow, thus making it difficult for air to go in and out of your lungs, causing the symptoms of asthma.
Asthma may resemble other respiratory problems, such as emphysema, bronchitis, and lower respiratory infections. It is often underdiagnosed and many people with the disease do not know they have it. Sometimes, the only symptom is a chronic cough, especially at night, or coughing or wheezing that occurs only with exercise. Some people think they have recurrent bronchitis, since respiratory infections usually settle in the chest in a person predisposed to asthma.
The exact cause of asthma is not completely known. It is believed to be partially inherited, but it also involves many other environmental, infectious, and chemical factors. After a person is exposed to a certain trigger, the body releases histamine and other agents that can cause inflammation in the airways. The body also releases other factors that can cause the muscles of the airways to tighten, or become smaller. There is also an increase in mucus production that may clog the airways.
Some persons have exercise-induced asthma, which is caused by varying degrees of exercise. Symptoms can occur during, or shortly after, exercise. In some people, stress or strong emotions can trigger an asthma attack. Each person has different triggers that cause the asthma to worsen. You should discuss this with your doctor.
The changes that occur in asthma are believed to happen in two phases:
A risk factor is anything that may increase a person's chance of developing a disease. It may be an activity, diet, family history, or many other things.
Different diseases have different risk factors. Although these factors can increase a person's risk, they do not necessarily cause the disease. For example, some people with one or more risk factors never develop cancer, while others develop cancer and have no known risk factors.
Knowing your risk factors to any disease can help to guide you into the appropriate actions, including changing behaviors and being clinically monitored for the disease.
Although anyone may have an asthma attack, it most commonly occurs in the following persons:
Other factors include the following:
Children most susceptible to asthma attacks include the following:
Persons with asthma have acute episodes when the air passages in their lungs become narrower, and breathing becomes more difficult. These problems are caused by an over-sensitivity of the lungs and airways.
To diagnose asthma and distinguish it from other lung disorders, doctors rely on a combination of medical history, physical examination, and laboratory tests, which may include the following:
According to the CDC, the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, and other organizations, triggers for asthma include the following:
|Allergens||Respiratory infections and sinusitis|
Infections can cause irritation of the airways, nose, throat, lungs, and sinuses, and worsens asthma.
|Irritants||Sensitivity to medications|
Medications, such as aspirin and additives, such as sulfites, cause up to 20 percent of adult asthmatic attacks as a result of sensitivities or allergies to them. These medications often include:
Before taking any medication, including over-the-counter medications, consult your doctor.
Strenuous physical exercise can trigger an asthma attack, often because of the inhaled cool and dry air. Long-term strenuous activities, such as long distance running, are most likely to induce asthma, and swimming is the least likely.
GERD, a condition characterized by persistent reflux of stomach acids, is common in individuals with asthma. Symptoms may include heartburn, belching, or spitting up in infants.
|Smoke||Emotional anxiety and nervous stress|
Tobacco smoke, whether directly or passively inhaled, has been shown to worsen asthma.
Wood smoke from wood-burning heating stoves and fireplaces can release irritating chemicals, such as sulfur dioxide.
Reactions from stress and anxiety are considered to be more of an effect than a cause. They can cause fatigue, which may affect the immune system and, in turn, increase either asthma symptoms or bring on an attack.
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