What is asthma?
is a common chest condition in which there is temporary narrowing of the
breathing tubes in the lungs (airways) because they are hyperreactive (oversensitive). In
asthma these tubes have inflammation and swelling of their linings, increased mucus
inside, tightening of the muscles in their walls and therefore less flow of air in and
out. Many people think asthma and wheezing are the same thing. Actually,
wheezing is only once sign of asthma, and many other things besides asthma can
cause wheezing. Because of this confusion, the term asthma is being replaced
with a more accurate description: Reactive Airway Disease (RAD). Those with RAD
(5% and growing in the U.S.) have bronchial (lung) passages that are more
sensitive to irritation than normal. This hypersensitivity leads to inflammation
(redness and swelling) in the tiny airways deep in the lungs. The inflammation
in turn causes excess mucus production, and tightening of airway muscles that
wind around the bronchial tubes like laces. The combination of swelling, mucus,
and muscle tightening all cause narrowing of the airways. Wheezing (whistling
and labored breathing) usually results, but a dry cough is sometimes the only
Nobody knows exactly why some people have RAD. Many times it is inherited, and is often associated with allergies (especially in children). Asthma can develop at any time, but is more common in young children. When it starts in childhood it usually improves with age. But with adult onset asthma, aging often worsens the problem. Asthma has also become more common in this country, again for unknown reasons.
What causes an attack?
What are the symptoms?
The main symptoms are breathlessness, tightness in the chest, wheezing and coughing (especially at night).
Symptoms or signs of very severe asthma are anxiety, blue colour of the lips (cyanosis), ashen grey colour of the skin, fast pulse, rapid breathing, indrawing of the chest wall, difficulty speaking, no response to asthma medication and feeling very sick. These uncommon severe symptoms mean that you should seek urgent medical attention-they are 'call the ambulance' signs.
How common is Asthma?
About 1 child in 4 or 5 has asthma, usually in a mild form. It usually comes on between
the ages of 2 and 7. Most children 'grow out of it' by puberty, but a small number get it again as adults. Others continue with it. About 1 in 10 adults has asthma.
What are the risks?
Severe asthma can retard the growth of children, but the biggest worry (although uncommon) is the number of deaths (including sudden deaths), especially in those who do not realise how severe the attack really is. With correct treatment, almost all children should be able to lead normal lives.
Know your asthma
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Date of Last Update: 07/27/12