Bronchial asthma (or asthma) is a lung disease. Your airways get narrow and swollen and are blocked by excess mucus. Medications can treat these symptoms.
Asthma, also called bronchial asthma, is a disease that affects your lungs. It’s a chronic (ongoing) condition, meaning it doesn’t go away and needs ongoing medical management.
Asthma affects more than 25 million people in the U.S. currently. This total includes more than 5 million children. Asthma can be life-threatening if you don’t get treatment.
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When you breathe normally, muscles around your airways are relaxed, letting air move easily and quietly. During an asthma attack, three things can happen:
When your airways get tighter, you make a sound called wheezing when you breathe, a noise your airways make when you breathe out. You might also hear an asthma attack called an exacerbation or a flare-up. It’s the term for when your asthma isn’t controlled.
Asthma is broken down into types based on the cause and the severity of symptoms. Healthcare providers identify asthma as:
Asthma has multiple causes:
Asthma can also be:
In addition, there are these types of asthma:
Anyone can develop asthma at any age. People with allergies or people exposed to tobacco smoke are more likely to develop asthma. This includes secondhand smoke (exposure to someone else who is smoking) and thirdhand smoke (exposure to clothing or surfaces in places where some has smoked).
Statistics show that people assigned female at birth tend to have asthma more than people assigned male at birth. Asthma affects Black people more frequently than other races.
Researchers don’t know why some people have asthma while others don’t. But certain factors present a higher risk:
You can have an asthma attack if you come in contact with substances that irritate you. Healthcare providers call these substances “triggers.” Knowing what triggers your asthma makes it easier to avoid asthma attacks.
For some people, a trigger can bring on an attack right away. For other people, or at other times, an attack may start hours or days later.
Triggers can be different for each person. But some common triggers include:
People with asthma usually have obvious symptoms. These signs and symptoms resemble many respiratory infections:
With asthma, you may not have all of these symptoms with every flare. You can have different symptoms and signs at different times with chronic asthma. Also, symptoms can change between asthma attacks.
Your healthcare provider will review your medical history, including information about your parents and siblings. Your provider will also ask you about your symptoms. Your provider will need to know any history of allergies, eczema (a bumpy rash caused by allergies) and other lung diseases.
Your provider may order spirometry. This test measures airflow through your lungs and is used to diagnose and monitor your progress with treatment. Your healthcare provider may order a chest X-ray, blood test or skin test.
You have options to help manage your asthma. Your healthcare provider may prescribe medications to control symptoms. These include:
You can take asthma medicines in several different ways. You may breathe in the medicines using a metered-dose inhaler, nebulizer or another type of asthma inhaler. Your healthcare provider may prescribe oral medications that you swallow.
The goal of asthma treatment is to control symptoms. Asthma control means you:
You should keep track of your asthma symptom. It’s an important piece of managing the disease. Your healthcare provider may ask to use a peak flow (PF) meter. This device measures how fast you can blow air out of your lungs. It can help your provider make adjustments to your medication. It also tells you if your symptoms are getting worse.
If your healthcare provider says you have asthma, you’ll need to figure out what triggers an attack. Avoiding the triggers can help you avoid an attack. You can’t prevent yourself from getting asthma, though.
If you have asthma, you can still live a very productive life and participate in sports and other activities. Your healthcare provider can help you manage symptoms, learn your triggers and prevent or manage attacks.
Your healthcare provider will work with you to develop an asthma action plan. This plan tells you how and when to use your medicines. It also tells you what to do based on your asthma symptoms and when to seek emergency care. Ask your healthcare provider about anything you don’t understand.
If you have a severe asthma attack, you need to get immediate medical care.
The first thing you should do is use your rescue inhaler. A rescue inhaler uses fast-acting medicines to open up your airways. It’s different than a maintenance inhaler, which you use every day. You should use the rescue inhaler when symptoms are bothering you and you can use it more frequently if your flare is severe.
If your rescue inhaler doesn’t help or you don’t have it with you, go to the emergency department if you have:
You’ll need to see a healthcare provider to find out if you have asthma or some other condition. There are other respiratory diseases that make it hard to breathe or cause coughing and wheezing.
No. Asthma can’t be cured, but it can be managed. Children may outgrow asthma as they get older.
Asthma that gets worse at night is sometimes called nighttime asthma or nocturnal asthma. There are no definite reasons that this happens, but there are some educated guesses. These include:
If you have asthma that is moderate-to-severe, or if your asthma symptoms aren’t well controlled, you’re at greater risk of having to be hospitalized if you get COVID-19. Therefore, you should wear a mask if you go to indoor spaces with other people, get vaccinated and avoid exposure to people who have the virus.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Many people live fulfilling lives with asthma. Some professional athletes with asthma have set records in their sports. Your healthcare provider can help you find the best way to manage your asthma. Talk to your healthcare provider about how to control your symptoms.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 01/19/2022.
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