The Effect of Asthma on Long-Term Health

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Asthma is a chronic illness, meaning that it's never completely cured. While some children and adults may see a significant decrease in symptoms, asthma attacks always remain a possibility for those who were previously diagnosed with the disease. For many, there is no period of remission. Instead, your symptoms may become progressively worse. The long-term effects of asthma can cause severe breathing difficulty and decrease your quality of life. With appropriate medication and lifestyle changes, however, you may be able to control your asthma and avoid some of the more grave complications associated with this chronic lung disease.

Common Symptoms

Typically, asthma is characterized by four major symptoms:

These symptoms may be mild or severe. They may occur daily, occasionally, or with specific triggers such as tobacco smoke, dust mites, exercise, or extreme temperatures and weather.

Living with asthma symptoms may be a permanent part of your life. With proper medication, the elimination of certain triggers, and monitoring of your asthma, you can keep these symptoms from getting worse and manage the disease. However, the short-term and long-term effects of asthma can cause complications that aggravate these symptoms and lead to serious health problems.

Complications related to asthma symptoms are especially a concern for those with severe asthma, a designation given to 5% to 10% of the total asthma population.

Bronchoconstriction

Wheezing, coughing, chest tightness, and shortness of breath are all brought on by the narrowing of your bronchi and bronchioles due to the tightening of smooth muscles that surround these airways. This is known as bronchoconstriction.

Bronchoconstriction is often caused by exercise. In exercise-induced asthma (also known as exercise-induced bronchoconstriction) airways constrict as a direct result of physical activity. This reaction can often be managed with medication, including:

However, when bronchoconstriction is chronic, which occurs in severe asthma, it can lead to a decrease in exercise tolerance. According to research, those who suffer from severe asthma engage in considerably less physical activity than the average person. For instance, compared to the general population, severe asthmatics may take approximately 31.4% fewer steps per day and engaged in 47.5% fewer minutes of combined moderate and vigorously intensive activity.

Over time, a lack of activity can lead to higher rates of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and other conditions that are associated with a sedentary lifestyle.

Airway Inflammation

With all types of asthma, the tissue in your airways become inflamed when they are exposed to irritants that cause an asthma attack. This response is the body's way of trying to protect the tissue, but it restricts the passage of air in and out of the lungs and makes breathing difficult. Chest tightness and wheezing are signs of inflammation.

Inhaled corticosteroids are often used to control inflammation in asthma. However, continual inflammation can increase the risk of lung infections because it allows infectious material to become trapped in the lungs.

Mucus Build Up

Bronchoconstriction and lung inflammation both cause increased production of mucus, which is created by cells in the lungs that release chemicals (mediators known as cytokines). The mucus can become lodged in the airway—the more severe the mucus accumulation, the tighter your airway becomes and the more pronounced wheezing and coughing will be during an asthma attack. Do not ignore the increase in mucus or assume that it is "just to be expected."

From a long-term perspective, excess mucus can increase your chance of infections like pneumonia. Repeated infections can then lead to complications including antibiotic resistance and scarring of the lungs. Scarring is irreversible and may lead to permanent lung damage.

Home Remedies

While these approaches will not help with the underlying problems related to asthma, some natural home remedies can relieve the discomfort of excessive mucus

  • Sleep with a humidifier in your room.
  • Add eucalyptus essential oil to the floor of the tub after showering and let the water steam carry it into the air.
  • Use honey to ease a mucus cough.

Airway Remodeling

One of the long-term complications of uncontrolled asthma is airway remodeling, which is the permanent narrowing of the bronchial tubes. If you fail to get good control over your asthma, this condition, which mimics COPD, can develop over many years.

Airway remodeling is a complication associated with all types of asthma severity, has been shown to affect both large and small airways. Repeated bouts of inflammation and constriction of the airways damage airways over time and lead to structural changes; these cause a progressive loss of lung function.

The best way to prevent remodeling is to achieve good asthma control. This means having rescue medications available when necessary, in addition to your asthma controller medication. Proper use of asthma medications should allow you to live an active, healthy lifestyle, with fewer asthma-related symptoms.

Can You Outgrow Asthma?

Some children with asthma stop having symptoms when they mature. By adolescence, 16% to 60% of children diagnosed with asthma seem to be in remission. However, doctors do not usually consider this a cure since even after years of living symptoms free, you could suffer an asthma attack at any time. The wide range of remission statistics shows that studies have been inconsistent in their design, and more research is needed to fully understand how and why some children seem to "get over" asthma.

In some studies, children who were more likely to go into remission had asthma characterized as:

Male children are also more likely to go into remission.

A Word From Verywell

While asthma cannot be cured, it can be managed. By developing an asthma action plan and working with your doctor to find the right medications, you can take control of asthma and limit its long-term effects. 

Keep in mind: If you have symptoms more than two days per week, use your rescue inhaler more than two times per week, or wake up at night three times per month, your asthma is not well controlled. You should work with your doctor to limit the attacks, protect your lungs, ensure you are able to exercise safely, and reduce the short and long-term impact of asthma on your life.

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  6. Trivedi M, Denton E. Asthma in Children and Adults-What Are the Differences and What Can They Tell us About Asthma?. Front Pediatr. 2019;7:256.doi:10.3389%2Ffped.2019.00256

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