More than 300 million people suffer with asthma worldwide. This life-long condition impairs breathing, limits daily activity and disturbs sleep. The wheezing and shortness of breath that commonly afflict asthma sufferers can be triggered by environmental factors, exercise, and even stress. Research has dramatically improved asthma treatment with an array of medicines that relieve acute attacks and control symptoms long-term.
Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disease that makes the airways constrict and causes shortness of breath, tightening of the chest, and coughing or wheezing. It is one of a group of inflammatory airway diseases that includes chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), pulmonary artery hypertension (PAH) and respiratory allergies.
In asthma, inflammation and shortness of breath can be triggered by things in the external environment, like viruses, air pollutants, dust mites, and even cold air. In some people, symptoms can be triggered by exercise or by stress. During an asthma attack, the body's immune system releases histamine and leukotrienes-substances that cause inflammation-from special cells, called mast cells. This creates mucus secretion and inflames the air passages, causing them to narrow and constrict breathing. In severe cases, asthma attacks can be life threatening.
Asthma has a genetic component. If one parent has asthma, chances are 1 in 3 that each child will have asthma; if both parents have asthma, chances increase to 7 in 10. There is also a link between asthma and obesity. Asthma is more common among people who are obese.
According to the Global Initiative for Asthma, asthma is increasing worldwide, especially in children. This may be due to increasing air pollution. The global increase in obesity may also be a factor. The increase in asthma might also reflect greater awareness and reporting of the disease.
Today's asthma treatments are highly effective in reducing inflammation and relieving symptoms. Patients use inhaled medicines to relieve constriction during acute asthma attacks, and daily medication to help control symptoms and maintain open airways. For more information about how to manage asthma, contact the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.