Asthma is a chronic respiratory disease that affects more than 25.7 million people in the U.S., 7 million of them children.1 Asthma causes an inflammation and narrowing of the airways, resulting in periods of wheezing, tightness in the chest, shortness of breath, and coughing, which occurs at night or in the early morning.
The disease most often starts in childhood, but can affect people of all ages. Those at the highest risk of developing asthma are young children who wheeze or have frequent respiratory infections that continue past the age of six.3
Allergies, eczema, or parents with asthma are also signs that asthma could develop in children. Occupational asthma can occur in adults who are in frequent contact with chemical irritants, dusts, or fumes.4
People with asthma suffer from inflamed airways, which are very sensitive to a number of irritants. Although each asthma sufferer is triggered by different irritants, the most common include tobacco smoke, dust mites, air pollution, household pets, mold, and physical exercise.5 When these irritants enter the airways, the muscles in the airways tighten and restrict the amount of air that can enter the lungs. An overproduction of mucus in the cells can also narrow the airways further. These symptoms can happen any time the airways are inflamed, sometimes subsiding on their own or with minor treatment.
Symptoms can sometimes become worse than usual and result in an asthma attack, a fairly common occurrence; about half—58.3% of children and 49.1% of adults—of people with asthma had at least once asthma attack in the previous 12 months. Asthma attacks can become severe enough that the airways close so much that the body’s organs do not receive the oxygen they need. Without immediate treatment, a person suffering from a severe asthma attack could die.
Emergency room visits for asthma-related problems is not uncommon. The CDC reported that in 2012, 1.8 million people visited an emergency care facility for asthma, and 439,000 people were hospitalized because of the condition. And the number of people suffering from asthma has only grown—the percentage of the U.S. population with asthma has increased from just 3.1% in 1980 to 8.4% in 2010.6
There is no cure for asthma, but there are plenty of treatment options that include both long-term control and quick-relief medication. The purpose of asthma treatment is to prevent symptoms, maintain lung function, reduce the need for quick-relief medication, prevent asthma attacks, and, perhaps most importantly, allow people with asthma to maintain a normal, active, and healthy lifestyle.
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. For more information about asthma, talk to your doctor or primary care provider.
Page last updated: October 14, 2018