Asthma

Asthma is a chronic lung disease. When you have asthma, your airways may react to a number of different triggers, such as smoke, allergens like pollen, or infections. This leads to constricted and inflamed airways, resulting in airflow obstruction and making it difficult to breathe.

The classic symptoms of asthma are wheezing, chest tightness, shortness of breath, and cough. Asthma can be treated with medications that help control the condition from day to day, while rescue inhalers treat acute attacks of narrowed airways.

Many people manage this condition successfully with the help of medication and by learning their personal triggers and making lifestyle changes. However, if your asthma symptoms become severe, it is considered a medical emergency. Call 911 or seek help right away. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What causes asthma?

    While its causes are still not entirely understood, asthma is frequently related to genetic factors—people with a family history of asthma are two to six times more likely to develop it themselves. It can also develop after exposure to respiratory infections, allergens, or irritants during childhood or in the workplace.

  • How is asthma diagnosed?

    In addition to evaluating your symptoms—such as shortness of breath, wheezing, or coughing—your doctor may check your breathing with lung (pulmonary) function tests as well as your response to treatment with bronchodilators. Experiencing asthma symptoms that resolve upon treatment with medication is generally considered sufficient for a diagnosis of asthma.

  • Is asthma curable?

    While asthma is not curable, it is highly treatable. Many people manage this condition successfully over the long term with the help of medication and by learning their personal triggers and making other lifestyle changes.

  • Is asthma an autoimmune disease?

    Recent research suggests there may be a link between asthma and autoimmune diseases, which are both the result of an overactive immune system. People with asthma are more likely to develop certain autoimmune diseases, such as type 1 diabetes, myasthenia gravis, and lupus. Mast cell activation—a prominent feature of asthma—is also believed to be involved in the symptoms of autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis.

Key Terms

Page Sources
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  1. Liu, T., Valdez, R., Yoon, P. et al. The association between family history of asthma and the prevalence of asthma among US adults: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 1999–2004. Genet Med 11, 323–328 (2009). doi:10.1097/GIM.0b013e31819d3015

  2. Mukherjee M, Nair P. Autoimmune responses in severe asthma. Allergy Asthma Immunol Res. 2018;10(5):428-47. doi:10.4168/aair.2018.10.5.428

Additional Reading