Overview

Asthma is a chronic lung disease that inflames and narrows the airways in the lungs. In the United States asthma affects an estimated 26 million people — many of whom aren’t aware that they have it, especially if their symptoms aren’t severe.

The most common symptoms are:
  • Coughing, especially at night, during exercise or when laughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness
  • Wheezing (a whistling or squeaky sound in your chest when you breathe, especially when exhaling)
  • Any asthma symptom is serious and can become deadly if left untreated.

Symptoms may be triggered by exposure to an allergen (such as ragweed, pollen, pet hair or dust mites), irritants in the air (such as smoke, chemical fumes or strong odors) or extreme weather conditions. Illness — particularly a respiratory illness or the flu — and exercise can also make you more susceptible.

A physical display of strong emotion that affects normal breathing patterns — such as shouting, crying or laughing — may also contribute to an asthma attack. Panic can prevent a person with asthma from relaxing and following instructions, which is essential during an attack. Scientists have found that rapid breathing associated with strong emotions can cause bronchial tubes to constrict, possibly provoking or worsening an attack.

Like any chronic condition, asthma can cause emotional strain. As a leading cause of work and school absences, it can have a significant effect on livelihood, education and emotional well-being. Depression may set in when people diagnosed with asthma believe that they are unable to participate in normal activities.

Asthma symptoms can happen at any time. Mild episodes may last only a few minutes and may be resolved spontaneously or with medication; more severe episodes can last from hours to days.

If you’re experiencing breathing difficulties that interfere with your daily activities and decrease the quality of your life, see an allergist for diagnosis and treatment. An allergist can also help you recognize the early warning signals of an attack and coach you in ways to cope during an emergency.

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