If you frequently experience shortness of breath or you hear a whistling or wheezy sound in your chest when you breathe, you may have asthma — a chronic condition that causes inflammation and narrowing of the bronchial tubes, the passageways that allow air to enter and leave the lungs. If people with asthma are exposed to a substance to which they are sensitive or a situation that changes their regular breathing patterns, the symptoms can become more severe.
Asthma symptoms affect an estimated 26 million people — 19 million adults and 7 million children — and are one of the leading causes of absences from work and school. Asthma often runs in families; according to the World Health Organization, about half the cases are due to genetic susceptibility and half result from environmental factors. Although there is no cure for asthma, effective treatments are available. Asthma can be best managed by seeing an allergist.
There are two types of asthma: allergic (caused by exposure to an allergen) and nonallergic (caused by stress, exercise, illnesses like a cold or the flu, or exposure to extreme weather, irritants in the air or some medications).
Shortness of breath
Wheezing (a whistling or squeaky sound in your chest when you breathe, especially when exhaling)
Outdoor allergens, such as pollens from grass, trees, and weeds
Indoor allergens, such as pet dander, dust mites, and mold
Certain drugs and food additives
Irritants in the air, such as smoke, chemical fumes, and strong odors
Colds, the flu or other illnesses
Exercise (although people with asthma can benefit from some exercise)
Weather conditions, such as cold air or extremely dry, wet or windy weather
Asthma Management and Treatment
Prevention of symptoms is the best strategy. A person with asthma should know what situations trigger an attack and avoid them whenever possible. If asthma attacks are severe, are unpredictable or flare up more than twice a week, consultation with an allergist can help to determine their cause and provide long-term treatment that controls or eliminates the symptoms.
Asthma Facts and Figures
Studies show that people with asthma who see a specialist, such as an allergist, reduce their:
Emergency room visits
Visits to the doctor because they are sick
Missed days from work or school
Health care costs
If asthma is left unmanaged or is misdiagnosed, it can be deadly:
Asthma is among the most common chronic childhood illnesses, accounting for 10.5 million missed school days a year. It also accounts for 14.2 million lost workdays for adults.
Every year, about 14 million people see a doctor for asthma. About 1.4 million patients visit a hospital outpatient department for asthma; almost 1.75 million go to a hospital emergency room.
The number of people in the world diagnosed with asthma is increasing. The greatest rise in asthma rates is among black children, with an almost 50 percent increase from 2001 through 2009.
Researchers estimate asthma-related costs, including the direct cost of health care and indirect costs such as decreased worker productivity, at around $60 billion annually.
Many people with asthma manage the condition well and can live a healthy and productive life by avoiding triggers and following their allergists’ instructions. If left unmanaged or misdiagnosed, asthma can be fatal; about 3,300 people die from it annually.