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Asthma Risk

About 26 million Americans say they've suffered from asthma at some point in their lives, including almost nine million children. Many of these people may not even know they're at risk.

On Thursday's The Early Show, medical correspondent Dr. Emily Senay explains how dangerous asthma is and what triggers it.

Asthma is a serious and potentially life-threatening chronic lung condition that is triggered by irritants in the air and the environment, which causes the airways in the lungs to constrict and restricts the ability to breathe. It can be deadly. About 5,000 people die annually because of asthma. And, asthma also results in half a million hospitalizations and two million emergency department visits.

Senay says the asthma rate is believed to have doubled since 1980 for unknown reasons, and the latest information shows that it's still a huge problem.

Asthma Prevalence:

  • 26 million Americans have been diagnosed
  • 8.6 million children have been diagnosed
  • 3.8 million children have had an episode in the past year
    Source: National Health Interview Survey

About two-thirds of all children suffering from asthma will grow out of the disease as their windpipes develop and grow. But one-third will have a reoccurrence.

Senay says there is no cure for asthma, but advances in treatment have made asthma a highly controllable condition. But for millions of people, asthma remains out of control. Part of the problem is that many of the symptoms can be mild, and people who have asthma may not seek attention until it's too late and a severe attack occurs.

Asthma warning signs are:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Cough
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Wheezing

Senay says a doctor needs to be alerted if a person experiences these symptoms to determine whether they have asthma. If you know you have it, you can treat it and take steps to avoid the things that trigger it.

Asthma can be triggered by a variety of irritants, and, Senay says, the newly-arrived spring allergy season presents plenty of triggers that can cause trouble.

Some asthma triggers are:

  • Allergens
  • Some drugs and food additives
  • Viral respiratory infections
  • Exercise
  • Pollutants in air from smoking, cars and industry

The American Lung Association says nearly half the U.S. population -- more than 137 million people -- live in areas where the air quality is unhealthy.