Types, Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment

What is asthma?

Asthma, also called bronchial asthma, is a disease that affects your lungs. It’s a chronic (ongoing) condition, meaning it doesn’t go away and needs ongoing medical management.

Asthma affects more than 25 million people in the U.S. currently. This total includes more than 5 million children. Asthma can be life-threatening if you don’t get treatment.

What is an asthma attack?

When you breathe normally, muscles around your airways are relaxed, letting air move easily and quietly. During an asthma attack, three things can happen:

  • Bronchospasm: The muscles around the airways constrict (tighten). When they tighten, it makes your airways narrow. Air cannot flow freely through constricted airways.
  • Inflammation: The lining of your airways becomes swollen. Swollen airways don’t let as much air in or out of your lungs.
  • Mucus production: During the attack, your body creates more mucus. This thick mucus clogs airways.

When your airways get tighter, you make a sound called wheezing when you breathe, a noise your airways make when you breathe out. You might also hear an asthma attack called an exacerbation or a flare-up. It’s the term for when your asthma isn’t controlled.

What types of asthma are there?

Asthma is broken down into types based on the cause and the severity of symptoms. Healthcare providers identify asthma as:

  • Intermittent: This type of asthma comes and goes so you can feel normal in between asthma flares.
  • Persistent: Persistent asthma means you have symptoms much of the time. Symptoms can be mild, moderate or severe. Healthcare providers base asthma severity on how often you have symptoms. They also consider how well you can do things during an attack.

Asthma has multiple causes:

  • Allergic: Some people’s allergies can cause an asthma attack. Allergens include things like molds, pollens and pet dander.
  • Non-allergic: Outside factors can cause asthma to flare up. Exercise, stress, illness and weather may cause a flare.

Asthma can also be:

  • Adult-onset: This type of asthma starts after the age of 18.
  • Pediatric: Also called childhood asthma, this type of asthma often begins before the age of 5, and can occur in infants and toddlers. Children may outgrow asthma. You should make sure that you discuss it with your provider before you decide whether your child needs to have an inhaler available in case they have an asthma attack. Your child’s healthcare provider can help you understand the risks.

In addition, there are these types of asthma:

  • Exercise-induced asthma: This type is triggered by exercise and is also called exercise-induced bronchospasm.
  • Occupational asthma: This type of asthma happens primarily to people who work around irritating substances.
  • Asthma-COPD overlap syndrome (ACOS): This type happens when you have both asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Both diseases make it difficult to breathe.

Who can get asthma?

Anyone can develop asthma at any age. People with allergies or people exposed to tobacco smoke are more likely to develop asthma. This includes secondhand smoke (exposure to someone else who is smoking) and thirdhand smoke (exposure to clothing or surfaces in places where some has smoked).

Statistics show that people assigned female at birth tend to have asthma more than people assigned male at birth. Asthma affects Black people more frequently than other races.

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