Asthma causes air passages going from the nose and mouth to the lungs to become inflamed and narrowed. Extremely common in children, it causes repeated episodes of wheezing, breathlessness, chest tightness, and nighttime or early morning coughing. These effects are usually temporary, but they cause shortness of breath, breathing trouble, and other symptoms. If an asthma episode is severe, a person may need emergency treatment to restore normal breathing. Asthma can be controlled by avoiding contact with environmental “triggers,” such as cockroaches, dust mites, furry pets, mold, tobacco smoke, and certain chemicals.
An estimated 20 million people of all races, ages and genders in the United States have asthma but is not always treated even though there are many options. The disease is the reason for nearly 500,000 hospital stays each year and costs many billions of dollars for the government.
Even though it affects many people, we could still learn more about what causes it and how to treat it. It can cause major problems, but in most cases, treatments work, allowing asthmatic people to live normal and active lives.
Allergic Asthma (asthma symptoms triggered by an allergic reaction): Characterized by narrowed and blocked airways always associated with allergy, which can be treated. Allergic asthma is the most common form of asthma. Many of the symptoms of allergic and non-allergic asthma are the same (coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath or rapid breathing, and chest tightness) but allergens such as dust mites, pet dander, pollens, mold, etc always trigger this kind of asthma.
With allergic and non-allergic asthma, people have inflamed or irritated airways which cause two secondary symptoms:
Non-Allergic Asthma (asthma symptoms triggered by factors not related to allergies): Non-allergic asthma is very similar in its symptoms, however the symptoms are NOT associated with an allergic reaction. Non-allergic asthma is instead triggered by other factors such as anxiety, stress, exercise, cold air, dry air, hyperventilation, smoke viruses or other irritants. In non-allergic asthma, the immune system is not involved in the reaction, as with allergic reaction.
- The bronchi, or airway branches leading to the lungs, become overly reactive and more sensitive to all kinds of asthma triggers such as allergens, cold and dry air, smoke and viruses.
- The lungs have difficulty moving air in and out, also called airflow obstruction. Together, these symptoms cause the tertiary symptoms the coughing, wheezing, tight chest and worse.
What Causes Asthma?
Since asthma has a genetic origin, passed down from generation to generation, the question isn’t really “what causes asthma,” but rather “what causes asthma symptoms to appear?” People with asthma have inflamed airways which are super-sensitive to triggers which do not bother other people.
Although asthma triggers vary from person to person based on if you have allergic asthma or non-allergic asthma, some of the most common include:
- Substances that cause allergies (allergens) such as dust mites, pollens, molds, pet dander, and even cockroach droppings. For many asthmatic people, the same substances that cause allergy symptoms (even things you eat) can trigger an asthma episode as well.
- Irritants in the air, including smoke from cigarettes, wood fires, or charcoal grills. Also, strong fumes or odors like household sprays, paint, gasoline, perfumes, and scented soaps. People are not actually allergic to them, but these particles can aggravate inflamed airways. People know most of the health risks of smoking, but many don’t know that it is also a common trigger of asthma symptoms. In fact, secondhand smoke worsens asthma in children and teens and may cause up to 26,000 new cases of asthma each year.
- Respiratory infections such as colds, flu, sore throats, and sinus infections. These are the number one asthma trigger in children.
- Exercise and other activities that make you breathe harder (especially in cold air). This is known as exercise-induced asthma. Symptoms may not appear until after several minutes of sustained exercise. Physical activities that can trigger asthma include exercise, laughing, crying, holding one's breath, and hyperventilating.
- Weather such as dry wind, cold air, or sudden changes in weather.
- Expressing strong emotions like anger, fear or excitement. When you experience strong emotions, your breathing changes -- even if you don’t have asthma. When a person with asthma laughs, yells, or cries hard, natural airway changes may cause wheezing or other asthma symptoms.
- Some medications like aspirin. Irritants in the environment can also bring on an asthma episode. These irritants may include paint fumes, smog, aerosol sprays and even perfume.
What Happens During an Asthma Episode?
People with asthma have inflamed, super-sensitive airways. Triggers cause the airway changes such as swelling of the airway linings, excess mucous which clogs the airways and tightening of the muscles around the airways. These changes narrow the airways until breathing becomes difficult and stressful, like trying to breathe through a straw stuffed with cotton.