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Asthma Basics

 What is Asthma?

Asthma is a chronic or long-term disease of the lungs. It causes sudden breathing problems known as asthma attacks. An asthma attack can range from mild to life-threatening and may come on quickly or over time. During an asthma attack, the airways narrow and produce more mucus, causing an increase in asthma symptoms.


The airways in the lungs of people with asthma are more sensitive when they breathe in tobacco smoke, pollen, and dust. People with asthma can be sensitive to bacteria, viruses, cold air and exercise too. These are triggers. People with asthma have different triggers. When they come in contact with one of their triggers, it becomes hard to breathe. This is an asthma attack.

Three changes take place during an asthma attack

  • The lining of the airways swell. This is inflammation.

  • The muscles around the airways squeeze. This is bronchoconstriction.

  • The mucus glands in the airways make more mucus that is thicker than normal.

The three changes make the airways smaller. The three changes make it hard to breathe.

An asthma attack may come on quickly or over time. It can be mild to deadly.

Asthma is a long-lasting illness. This means that once you have asthma, you have asthma for the rest of your life. Your airways are still sensitive even when you feel good. You can control asthma with medicine and making a few changes in how you live.

Asthma Symptoms

Asthma needs long-term control. People with asthma may have mild symptoms that only last a few minutes. They may have more harmful symptoms that last hours or days. People with asthma can have symptoms at any time. This is called an asthma attack. Some call it an asthma flare-up.

Asthma Symptoms can include:

  • Cough (especially at night)

  • Wheezing

  • Shortness of breath

  • Chest tightness

  • Limitations in activity

  • Rapid breathing

Note when you have asthma symptoms so you can tell your doctor. This will help your doctor treat you. Remember, the doctor treats every person with asthma different. 

Asthma symptoms get worse for some people:

  • When around and breathing in asthma triggers

  • At night or early in the morning (may be the only symptom for a child

  • During exercise

  • During a certain season of the year

  • During a cold or flu

  • After laughing or crying

  • During stress

Learn about asthma signs asthma symptoms.

Asthma Triggers

People with asthma have sensitive airways.  Symptoms start after a person with asthma is exposed to triggers. People have different triggers, but they can include one, some, or all the following: 


  • Indoor mold

  • Pollen

  • Air pollution

  • Animal dander

  • Dust mites

  • Cockroaches


  • Tobacco smoke

  • Wood burning smoke (ex: campfires, incenses, BBQs)

  • Perfumes and sprays (ex: air fresheners and wax warmers)

  • Household chemicals (ex: chemical cleaners and bleach)

  • Strong odors (ex: sewage and cooking odors)


  • Illness

  • Weather

  • Medicines

  • Extreme emotion (ex: crying or laughing)

Myths and Facts

View the Myths and Facts PDF