What Is Asthma?


What Is Asthma?

Asthma is a chronic respiratory disease marked by coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath. More than 14 million Americans have been diagnosed with this often misunderstood and potentially fatal disease. In Western Pennsylvania, an estimated 240,000 people have asthma — 41 % are children under the age of 18. Asthma is controllable. You can learn how to manage your asthma or help a family member breathe easier by knowing the warning signs of asthma, encouraging proper diagnosis and following a treatment plan prescribed by a physician.

Asthma is a chronic disease of the airways or breathing tubes caused by inflammation, swelling, constriction, and excess mucus production. The airways react to “triggers” such as smoke, dust, pollen, fumes, infection, or exercise. As the airways narrow and become clogged with mucus, some or all of the common symptoms of asthma may occur.


The warning signs of asthma may be mild or severe. All symptoms should be taken seriously and reported to your physician.

  • Coughing, unrelated to a cold
  • Wheezing or noisy breathing
  • Chest tightness or back pain
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Listlessness or lack of energy

All breathing problems should be discussed with a physician. Although asthma can not be cured, early diagnosis and treatment can prevent long term lung damage and prevent untimely deaths from asthma. Your physician can assess your symptoms and administer lung function tests to diagnose asthma or other respiratory diseases.


The following signs indicate an asthma emergency. Seek immediate medical assistance.

  • Unable to speak in sentences
  • Blue- or gray-tinged lips or fingernails
  • Neck and chest muscles strain with labored breathing
  • Rapid breathing or panting


Certain stimuli can trigger asthma. You can control asthma symptoms by knowing what causes your asthma and by avoiding or reducing the triggers in your environment.


  • Aspirin, penicillin, sulfa
  • Insect stings and bites
  • Foods, especially chocolate, peanuts and nuts, milk, wheat, eggs, citrus and others
  • Pollens, especially grasses, weeds and trees
  • Animals cats, dogs, horses, birds and other animals with fur or feathers
  • Molds, mildew, and spores
  • Dust and dust mites


  • Influenza
  • Colds/viruses

Weather Changes

  • Temperature
  • Humidity


  • Increased heart rate due to physical exertion

Environmental Factors

  • Cigarette smoke
  • Ozone and air pollution
  • Aerosols and chemical cleaners


  • Anxiety
  • Anger
  • Stress


Asthma that is not well controlled can cause missed days at work or school. hospital stays, emergency room visits and needless deaths. When you work with a physician you can control your asthma and become symptom free most of the time. Remember that asthma does NOT go away when your symptoms go away. You must follow your daily medication schedule, avoid triggers and monitor symptoms to effectively manage asthma.


Early Diagnosis

Seek the care of a physician if you experience any of the asthma warning signs – cough, wheeze, chest tightness, shortness of breath. Take the Asthma Awareness Test. If you can answer “yes” to three or more questions, please seek medical advice.

Understand Your Condition

Asthma is characterized by an inflammatory process that produces a sequence of events that hinders breathing. It requires prescribed medications, monitoring, and knowledgeable management strategies.

Follow Doctor’s Orders

Use medications as prescribed. Understand how your medications work and how you can expect to benefit from them, for example:

  • Anti-inflammatory agents reduce and prevent inflammation and swelling of the airways. These medicines can prevent symptoms if used consistently.
  • Bronchodilators open airways or breathing tubes by relaxing the surrounding muscles. They’re fast-acting and provide quick relief. Use your inhalers correctly. Sometimes adding a spacer or chamber can increase the benefit of these types of medicines.


Monitor your symptoms. Report any problems or changes to your doctor. Learn how to use a peak flow meter and based on your personal best, determine your good and bad zones. Asthma cannot be cured – but if asthma is a part of your life, you need to understand how it affects you and those around you. This is especially true even if your asthma is mild. Your Asthma Can Be Controlled With Proper Care!

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