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Information for Patients

Asthma webIf you, or someone you care for, have asthma, the following information may help you learn more about the illness. It has been designed to provide some basic information and tips for managing your condition.

Asthma is a chronic (long term) disease of the airways. It is characterized by reversible airflow obstruction (tightening of the smooth muscles around the airways), inflammation (swelling) and mucus production when airways are exposed to various stimuli (triggers).

Asthma has no cure but there are effective medications to control symptoms and prevent asthma attacks. Asthma can be life-threatening, requiring emergency room care or hospital admission. However, with proper care, including medication, monitoring your symptoms, and leading a healthy lifestyle, you should be able to control your symptoms and improve your day-to-day quality of life.


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  • According to the 2002 Indiana Behavioal Risk Factor Surveillance System Survey, 7.5% of adults aged 18 and older have asthma. This figure is identical to the overall US statistic.
  • Data from the 2002 CDC National Health Interview Survey indicate that 20 million people in the US have asthma.
  • In 2002 Children 5-17 years of age missed 14.7 million school days due to asthma.
  • In 2002 Adults 18 years of age and over who were currently employed missed 11.8 million work days due to asthma.


What Causes Asthma?

Asthma can develop at any age. What exactly causes the bronchial tubes to become swollen is still not known. However, possible risk factors for developing asthma in childhood include:

  • Family history of allergy and allergic disorders
  • High exposure of airborne allergy causing substances (pet dander, house dust mites, cockroaches, mold) among susceptible children in the first year of life
  • Exposure to tobacco smoke (this includes in utero exposure)
  • Frequent respiratory infections early in life
  • Low birth weight and respiratory distress syndrome

Possible risk factors for developing asthma as an adult include:

  • Exposure to certain chemicals in the workplace
  • Exposure to respiratory infection or allergy-causing substances
  • Smoking

What Causes an Asthma Attack?

During an asthma attack, airway muscles tighten, the inside of the airway swells, and more mucus is produced. Less air can get in and out of the lungs and breating becomes difficult. Due to swelling, the airways of people with asthma are twitchy or hyper-sensitive and, therefore, easily irritated. Irritants that cause an asthma attack are called "triggers". Examples of common asthma triggers are: pollen, mold, dust, pet dander, air pollution, cold air, smoking (including second hand smoke), exercise, and emotional upset.

Though very mild symptoms may not require immediate attention, they can never be ignored; and usually some intervention is necessary. It is, therefore, recommended that a person with asthma have a written action plan that will say what steps to take and when to take them.

What are the Symptoms of Asthma?

If you think you might have asthma, you should visit your doctor for a diagnosis. Every person experiences an asthma attack differently. You might experience all of the following problems or just a few:

  • Shortness of breath (breathing out is more difficult than breathing in)
  • Wheezing (noisy breathing that starts off as a whistling sound and then becomes a shrill noise as breathing becomes more difficult)
  • Chest tightness (you feel as though air is trapped in the lungs and you can't breath it out), or pain around the chest
  • Persistent cough that can last several weeks

An asthma attack can develop suddenly, or gradually, taking anywhere from a few minutes or even a few days. Sometimes people, especially children, will appear to be uneasy and restless just before having an asthma attack.

Severity of Asthma Attacks

Asthma attacks can range from the mild to the severe.

Severe Asthma Attacks: Symptoms can include any of the following:

  • You might feel breathless and find breathing very difficult
  • You might have difficulty finishing a sentence in one breath
  • Your neck muscles feel tight when you breathe
  • Your lips and fingernails might have a grayish or bluish color
  • The skin on your chest might be sucked in around your ribs

When this happens you need to take your "rescue" medication immediately and seek emergency medical help. Do not wait before getting help because it is possible that your airways will close completely and make breathing impossible. People who have waited too long before seeking medical help have died from asthma!

Moderate and Mild Asthma Attacks: Symptoms can include any of the following:

  • A tight feeling in your chest
  • Coughing or spitting up mucus
  • You may feel restless or have trouble sleeping
  • You may have wheezing or noisy breathing

When this happens, you should take your rescue medication. This medication should take just a few minutes to work - know about how long it will take before your medication relieves your symptoms. Be sure to talk with your doctor if your medication is taking longer to work than it is supposed to.

Sudden severe asthma attacks can occur even if a person has mild asthma. These asthma attacks can be life-threatening. If you experience a sudden severe asthma attack, seek emergency care immediately.

Second Wave Asthma Attacks: Beware - sometimes people may experience a second wave after the initial asthma attack has eased-up. This happens because of changes in the airways during the initial asthma attack that cause the swelling to continue. This second wave will make breathing more difficult. You might also be more sensitive to irritants - this, in turn, can trigger more asthma attacks.

If you experience a second wave, you might need to be admitted to hospital to receive medical care.


Sources: US Department of Human and Health Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, British Columbia Ministry of Health, National Institutes of Health, National Heart Lung & Blood Institute


Click here to take Adult Asthma Test.

Click here to take the Childhood Asthma Test.