More than 20 million adults and children have it, federal statistics show.
It's a serious and potentially deadly disease, but it can be managed with early diagnosis and appropriate treatment. The problem is that it's sometimes difficult to recognize, so valuable treatment time can be lost. So, you have to know the warning signs, and how to treat it.
On The Early Show Saturday, medical contributor Dr. Mallika Marshall discussed the symptoms, and how to approach them:
WHAT, EXACTLY, IS ASTHMA?
Someone with asthma has inflammation in his or her lungs at baseline, but when they come into contact with certain triggers, their lungs can become more inflamed, producing more mucus, and the muscles in the walls of the airways contract, making the airways narrow. All of these changes make it hard to move air in and out of the lungs. This is what's called an asthma attack. Asthma is considered a chronic condition, because a person may have it for life. It can occur at any age, but it usually begins in childhood.
WHAT KINDS OF THINGS CAN CAUSE SOMEONE TO HAVE AN ASTHMA ATTACK?
Many people with asthma also have allergies to pollen, animal dander, molds, or house dust, and exposure to these allergens can trigger an attack. Then there are what we call irritants, which can irritate the lining of the lungs and trigger an attack - things such as cigarette smoke, perfumes, cold air, or even the common cold. And some people only develop symptoms when they exercise. This is called exercise-induced asthma.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE SYMPTOMS ASSOCIATED WITH ASTHMA?
One of the most common symptoms is wheezing, which is a high-pitched, whistling sound someone breathes out. Another common asthma symptom is coughing. Some people with asthma only have a nagging cough, and nothing more. And then many people complain of shortness of breath and chest tightness. People with mild asthma may only get symptoms once-in-a-blue-moon, whereas people with more severe asthma may have problems every day.
WHO GETS ASTHMA?
Asthma tends to run in families, so if you're a child and one of your parents has asthma, you're three-to-six times more likely to develop it, too. Other risk factors include exposure to secondhand smoke. Also, exposure to environmental pollutants, like in the inner-city, for example. Babies born very small or premature are at higher risk. And obesity is a risk factor, as well.
HOW IS ASTHMA TREATED?
There are two main approaches: medications to give quick relief and those that can help prevent asthma attacks. The quick-relief medications include bronchodilators in the form of an inhaler that help relax the muscles in the airway to enable them to open. And oral steroids, such as Prednisone, reduce inflammation. The medications used to prevent asthma attacks include steroid inhalers and pills called leudotriene antagonists, both of which are used daily to keep inflammation in the airways at bay.
HOW CAN YOU TELL THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ASTHMA AND BRONCHITIS?
Well, there are other lung conditions that can cause wheezing. Acute bronchitis is one of them. This usually occurs in the setting of a viral or bacterial infection. A patient may have wheezing, but also typically has a cough with phlegm and other upper-respiratory symptoms such as runny nose, congestion, and perhaps fever. It usually clears up within a couple of weeks with treatment. Again, asthma is a chronic condition that can last for years.
SOME PEOLE SAY CHILDREN WHO HAVE ASTHMA MAY "GROW OUT OF IT." IS THIS TRUE?
It's true that some children may have asthma for a few years and then never have a problem again. But for most children, they will have problems with asthma their whole lives. But bear in mind that asthma, though it can be very serious and deadly in some cases, is controllable with proper treatment.