What Is Asthma?

Asthma Explained ...

Asthma is a condition that affects the airway passage and makes it difficult to breathe.

Susan works night shifts.

"When I finish work, it's about 4am in the morning and it's really cold. When I leave the hospital and suddenly hit the cold air, I feel as if I just can't breathe. My chest clamps up so much that it hurts. Then, when I get in the car and put the heater on, it's fine again."

What Susan is describing is an asthma attack (technically called bronchospasm, the key event in asthma). During an asthma attack the muscles tighten around the airway tubes, restricting air in and out of the lungs. Mucus often accumulates as well. An attack can last several minutes to several days.

During As Asthma Attack

People with asthma have sensitive muscles around their air way passage. When something irritates these bands of muscle - they clamp up and the air passage is narrowed. This stops air from leaving the lungs at the normal speed, which means the lungs are still half-full when it's time for the next in-breath. Taking more air into half-full lungs produces pain and tightness in the chest, as the lungs become over-inflated. This can be alarming, because it can seem like pain from the heart, but it is just the rib joints and chest muscles hurting as they become stretched.

At the same time, less oxygen reaches the bloodstream because there is so much stale air in the lungs, so the asthmatic also feels breathless. Meanwhile, the air being forced through the narrowed airways makes a whistling sound called wheezing. See: what are the symptoms of asthma?

Triggers Of Asthma Attack

Any of the following can cause the muscles to narrow:

* Sudden exposure to cold air
* Cigarette smoke
* Respiratory infections (including colds)
* Dust mites, mold, pollen and animal dander (the stuff that animals shed, like skin and hair)
* Strenuous exercise
* Sulfites in food - often found in dried foods, wine, marachino cherries, beer and potatoes
* Only rarely is asthma triggered by stress, although for many years this was considered a primary trigger.
See also: What triggers an asthma attack? Top 10 common triggers.

Can It Kill You?

Yes it can kill you - if not managed properly. Asthma results in 2 million emergency room visits every year in the United States. Women are nearly 3 times more likely than men to be hospitalized for asthma and to die of an attack (due to oxygen restriction). In 2007 3,262 adults and 185 children died from asthma attacks in the U.S. However, by avoiding the triggers and using appropriate medication, most people with asthma live active, healthy lives.

Who Is Likely To Develop Asthma?

Asthma in many cases seems to be inherited - it runs in families. It is not necessarily a lifelong condition, it can appear at any time in your life. For example, it's not uncommon for a woman to develop asthma in her 40s or even 50s, particularly if she suffers from allergies. Read more about what causes asthma?.

Allergy Related Questions

When is a cough asthma? When coughing is chronic ...
Respiratory system - Awesome page explaining this system in the body!
What is the treatment for asthma? Drugs and medicines.
What is the best exercise for asthma? Swimming, walking, yoga and more.
How is asthma diagnosed? Testing for the condition.
When is asthma not asthma? Other things that can mimic symptoms.
What is an asthma diet? Anti-asthma foods.
Chest conditions - A to Z of what can go wrong in the chest area!

• Got another question? See: Allergy Questions

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