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What Is Asthma?

Asthma is a chronic condition that affects the airways in your lungs by causing constriction in the tubes that carry air in and out of your lungs. Asthma often starts during childhood, but it can affect people at all stages of life. It frequently causes wheezing, coughing or a tight feeling in your chest. These symptoms can range from mild to severe and can occur daily or rather infrequently.

While asthma can be serious and life-threatening, for most people it is a manageable chronic condition. It is also very common. There are more than 25 million Americans living with asthma and this condition affects approximately 10% of adult women and 6% of adult men. If you are diagnosed with asthma, our compassionate doctors are here to help.

Classifications of Asthma

Asthma is classified in terms of its severity. There are four  classifications, including:

  • Intermittent asthma — You have symptoms less than twice a week and wake up less than two nights a month.
  • Mild persistent asthma — You have symptoms two or more days a week and wake up three to four nights a month.
  • Moderate persistent asthma — You have symptoms at least every day and wake up one or more nights a week.
  • Severe persistent asthma — You have symptoms during the day and wake up every night due to asthma.

Signs and Symptoms of Asthma

Asthma symptoms happen when your airways constrict and they can include:

  • Wheezing
  • Coughing, especially at night
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain, tightness or pressure
  • Fast heart rate
  • Throat irritation

Not everybody with asthma will experience the same symptoms in the same ways. You might not have all of these symptoms, or you may experience different symptoms at different times. Your asthma symptoms can also vary from one asthma attack to the next, being mild during one and severe during another. Some people with asthma may go for extended periods without having any symptoms, whereas others might have asthma symptoms every day.

What Is an Asthma Attack?

An asthma attack is the term used for when the airways constrict and you may experience symptoms. This tightening and constricting is called a bronchospasm. During an attack, the airways can also become swollen and inflamed and your body produces more mucus. The constriction, inflammation and mucus production are what can cause you to experience the symptoms of wheezing, difficulty breathing or coughing. Asthma attacks can feel scary because you may struggle to breathe.

Mild asthma attacks are more common than severe ones and usually subside within a few minutes to a few hours after treatment. Treatment for mild asthma attacks typically involves using an inhaler. Severe asthma attacks are less common but last longer and may require immediate medical help. It is important to recognize and treat even mild symptoms of an asthma attack to help you prevent severe episodes and keep asthma under control.

Types of Asthma

There are different types of asthma and they can vary in severity. The things that can trigger asthma attack can also vary. In addition to the different types, asthma can also be classified by when symptoms begin, childhood asthma vs adult-onset asthma. 

Childhood/Pediatric Asthma 

Childhood/pediatric pulmonology focuses on diseases and breathing issues in children’s lungs. Common conditions include asthma, pneumonia, wheezing and bronchitis. Learn more about childhood asthma

Allergic Asthma

People who suffer from seasonal allergies can also have asthma that accompanies them. Over half of asthma cases involve allergies of some kind. The most common allergens that trigger asthma are pollen, mold, dust mites and pet dander. The predominant cause of allergic asthma is genetic predisposition along with hypersensitivity to certain triggers. Managing allergic asthma requires treating your allergies and learning to avoid potential triggers

Non-allergic Asthma

Non-allergic asthma is less common than allergic asthma, frequently develops later in life and can be more severe. Non-allergic asthma still involves triggers that can cause asthma attacks, but the triggers aren’t allergens. Instead, they can be cold weather, dry air, secondhand smoke, a virus or infection, heartburn, strong odors, pollution or even strong feelings like anxiety.

Nocturnal Asthma

Nocturnal asthma is when you have more frequent or more severe asthma symptoms at night. It can occur if you have allergic asthma or non-allergic asthma and is more common in adults than children. Nocturnal asthma can be brought on by nighttime-specific triggers, like pet dander in your bedroom or cold air. It can also be brought on by changes that occur in your body at night as your circadian rhythm causes hormonal changes. Nocturnal asthma can be accompanied by sleep apnea as well, and the two can worsen each other.

Exercise-induced Bronchoconstriction

Exercise-induced bronchoconstriction occurs when cardiovascular exercise causes the airways in the lungs to constrict, resulting in shortness of breath. About 90% of people with asthma experience exercise-induced bronchoconstriction, but not all people who experience exercise-induced bronchoconstriction have asthma. There are environmental factors that can cause this reaction in people without asthma, or worsen an attack in people with asthma. These factors include cold air, hot air like in a hot yoga studio, chlorine, strong odors or the presence of allergens. Symptoms will usually happen within 30 minutes of starting exercise, but can continue for 10 to 15 minutes even after you stop. If you experience constricted airways and difficulty breathing beyond what is caused from the exercise itself, have an inhaler on hand so that you can treat attacks when they happen. Learn how to use an inhaler.

Occupational Asthma

Occupational asthma occurs when you are exposed to substances in your workplace that, over time, irritate your lungs and cause a sensitivity to them. These substances include things like certain cleaning products; mold; chemicals including hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide and ammonia; insects; latex and paint. Occupational asthma accounts for approximately 15% of asthma cases, almost exclusively in adults. There are more than 250 substances that can lead to occupational asthma and you’re at higher risk if you work in a bakery, farm, manufacturing facility, laboratory, mill or metal or wood processing facility. 

Cough-variant Asthma

Cough-variant asthma typically only has one symptom, a dry cough. Because the symptom is so mild, you might not know you have a type of asthma. By itself, cough-variant asthma is not a cause for significant concern. However, about one-third of people with cough-variant asthma go on to develop more severe allergic or non-allergic asthma. If you notice you are having coughing bouts that happen after you wake up or after exercise, worsen in cold, dry weather or accompany seasonal allergies, make an appointment with your doctor.

At Banner Health, we are committed to treating your asthma effectively and compassionately. Our doctors are here to provide expert treatment and support and individualized guidance to how to live well with asthma.

Learn more about living with asthma.