Asthma is an inflammatory disorder of the airways, which causes attacks of wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness and coughing. Uncontrolled, asthma can be extremely dangerous - leading to death, decreased ability to exercise, fatigue, and a persistent cough. Almost 10 percent of children have asthma in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and it accounts for more than 2 million emergency department visits each year.
Asthma symptoms can vary greatly among individuals and range from minor to severe. Patients might find they have symptoms primarily at night, during exercise or when they are exposed to specific asthma triggers. Symptoms include:
- Shortness of breath
- Trouble sleeping because of coughing, wheezing or shortness of breath.
- Chest tightness
- A whistling or wheezing sound – common among children with asthma
For some people, asthma symptoms flare up only with certain triggers:
- Exercise-induced asthma occurs during exercise. For many people, exercise-induced asthma is worse when the air is cold and dry.
- Occupational asthma is asthma that's caused or worsened by breathing in a workplace irritant such as chemical fumes, gases or dust.
- Allergy-induced asthma: Some people have asthma symptoms that are triggered by particular allergens, such as pet dander, cockroaches or pollen.
Many factors can lead to the development of asthma, including:
- A family history of asthma
- Low levels of Vitamin D
- Smoking or second-hand smoke
- Low birth weight
- Workplace exposures to chemicals
- Sinusitis or the inflammation of the sinuses that occurs with a viral, bacterial, or fungal infection
- Antibiotic use in the first year of life
In addition, several other factors can play a role in the development of asthma, such as:
- Gender - Before puberty, asthma is more common in boys, but after adolescence, it becomes more common in girls. And in adults, women report more severe symptoms than men. In addition, women might be at a greater risk of death from asthma than men.
- Obesity - Increasingly, studies are showing a strong association between obesity and asthma - with some health experts suggesting that the excess weight pressing on the lungs might trigger an asthma attack. Others speculate that asthma leads to obesity because it inhibits physical activity. Finally, some wonder whether obese patients might be misdiagnosed with asthma, when they are really just simply short of breath. However, losing weight appears to relieve many asthma symptoms.
- Urban living and poverty - The urban poor are among those for the greatest risk for severe asthma and death. Reasons range from a lack of asthma management plans to poor living conditions.