Asthma: Overview

What is asthma?

Asthma is a chronic respiratory condition that usually develops during childhood. It occurs when the airways in the lungs become inflamed (swollen) and constrict (become smaller), making breathing difficult.

Asthma affects all the airways in the respiratory system, from the windpipe (trachea) in the neck to the smallest airways in the lungs. No two children with asthma are alike. Asthma affects the airways of children in three ways:

  • Inflammation (swelling) of the lining of the airways. When the airway lining swells because of inflammation, there is less room for air to flow in and out. This swelling can last for weeks after an acute episode, called an asthma attack, or may become a condition that never completely goes away.
  • Bronchospasm is caused by tightening of the muscles that surround the airways. This narrows the airway, preventing air from getting in or out of the lungs.
  • Excessive mucus is produced in the lungs and often blocks the airways.

Symptoms occur when airways are irritated from asthma triggers like a cold or allergies. Asthma can be controlled in the majority of children if properly treated. Because symptoms vary from child to child and from episode to episode, four keys to successful treatment are:

  • Individualized care program
  • Recognition of warning signs of a severe episode
  • Early treatment
  • Avoiding things that trigger asthma attacks as much as possible

What causes asthma?

Researchers are still not sure exactly what causes asthma, but they do know it can be caused by both genetics and the environment. It is important to learn what causes asthma attacks and increased asthma symptoms for individuals.

When someone with asthma has difficult time breathing, we call it an asthma attack. Asthma attacks are caused by the three factors described above: inflammation, bronchospasms and excess mucus.

Asthma attacks are set off by things around us called 'triggers.'  Because everyone's asthma is different, everyone's triggers are different too. Common asthma triggers include:

  • Tobacco smoke
  • Colds and respiratory viral infections
  • Exercise (.pdf)
  • Strong odors
  • Perfumes or cleaning agents
  • Environmental allergens (including trees, grasses and pets)
  • Dust
  • Mold or mildew
  • Cold air
  • Food allergies

Triggers are specific to each child, but smoking and secondhand smoke have been found to have a strong negative effect on children's asthma. Protect your child from secondhand smoke by keeping your home and car smoke free. If you or someone you know is a smoker and is considering quitting, try visiting Colorado QuitLine for ideas or assistance.

Why is it important to treat asthma?

Early identification and treatment of asthma is important to a child's health, growth and development. Untreated asthma can lead to loss of lung function over time and interfere with your child's participation in sports and activities. Asthma is also one of the leading causes of school absences.

What is the difference between allergies and asthma?

Asthma is inflammation and obstruction of airflow in the airways. Allergies are one of the factors that can trigger asthma attacks. Not all people with asthma have allergies, and there are many people who have allergies but do not have asthma. If your child is old enough, skin-testing (.pdf) or lab testing for environmental allergens can be performed.

Who gets asthma?

More than 22 million people in the United States, including almost 7 million children, have been diagnosed with asthma. Doctors are not sure why some people get asthma, but you are more likely to have it if someone in your family has asthma or allergies.

Asthma can occur at any age, but is more common in children than adults. Young boys are nearly twice as likely as young girls to develop asthma, but that is not the case in older children and adults. Obesity is a newly identified risk factor for asthma.

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