Asthma Glossary of Terms

Originally Published 2007
Reprinted with the permission of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America

Q. What is asthma?
A. Asthma is an inflammatory disease of the airway. As a result of this inflammation, the airways become blocked or narrowed because of swelling, muscular contractions and mucous production. These effects are usually temporary, but they cause shortness of breath, breathing trouble and other symptoms. If an asthma attack is severe, a person may need emergency treatment to restore normal breathing. More than 15 million people in the United States have asthma. This health problem is the reason for nearly half-a-million hospital stays each year. People with asthma can be of any race, age or sex. Its treatment costs billions of dollars each year. Despite the far-reaching effects of asthma, much remains to be learned about what causes it and how to prevent it. Although asthma can cause severe health problems, in most cases treatment can control it and allow a person to live a normal and active life.
Q. Who is at risk of developing asthma?
A. We do not know for certain why some people get asthma and others do not. To some extent, asthma runs in families. People whose brothers, sisters or parents have asthma are more likely to develop the illness themselves. Some people also inherit a tendency to develop allergies. This is not to say that a parent can pass on a specific type of allergy to a child. In other words, it doesn’t mean that if your mother is allergic to bananas, you will be too. But you may develop allergies to something else, like pollen or mold. Allergies can trigger asthma in some people. People, who develop allergies to certain substances, to which they are constantly exposed to-particularly animals and house dust mites-are at an increased risk of developing asthma.
Q. What causes asthma attacks?
A. Substance in our environment can cause an asthma attack. These factors vary from person to person, but common ones include cold air; exercise; allergens (things that cause allergies) such as dust mites, mold, pollen, animal dander or cockroach debris; and some types of viral infections.
Q. Is there a cure for asthma? A.No, there is no cure for asthma. Although asthma cannot be cured it can be controlled. There are many medicines that help people with asthma. Some are preventive medicines and others are known as quick relievers. The preventive medicines are used for long-term control of the disease and work to make asthma attacks less frequent and less severe. Quick reliever medicines offer short-term relief of symptoms when asthma episodes occur.
Q. Can a child outgrow asthma?
A. Approximately 50 percent of children with asthma appear to outgrow asthma when they reach adolescence. Once someone develops sensitive airways, they remain that way for life, although asthma symptoms can vary through the years. As a child’s airways mature, they are able to handle airway inflammation and irritants better, so their asthma symptoms may notably decrease. About half of those children find their asthma symptoms reappear in varying degrees when they reach their late thirties or early forties. There is no way to predict which children may experience greatly reduced symptoms as they get older. New triggers may set off symptoms at any time in people who have asthma. If your child has asthma, keep ‘quick relief’ medications on hand (and up-to-date), even if symptoms are rare.
Q. Can asthma reappear in adults after disappearing years ago?
A. Asthma is usually diagnosed in childhood. In many patients, however, the symptoms will disappear or be significantly reduced after puberty. Around age 20, symptoms may begin to reappear. Researchers have tracked this tendency for reappearing asthma and found that people with childhood asthma tend to experience reappearing symptoms through their 30s and 40s at various levels of severity. Regardless of whether your asthma is active, continue to avoid your known triggers and keep your rescue medications or prescriptions up-to-date and handy in case you need them.
Q. Can people die from asthma?
A. Each day, 14 people die from asthma. These days, with proper treatment and management, most people should be able to keep their asthma under control to avoid life-threatening asthma attacks. It is important that all people with asthma follow their doctor’s instructions and keep their emergency medications current and handy.
Q. How many people have asthma? The number of people with asthma has been steadily increasing. In the United States, 10 million adults and 5 million children have asthma. The number of American children with asthma has reached epidemic proportions.
Q. Is it possible to build up a tolerance to asthma and allergy medications taken regularly?
A. No, you can’t build up a tolerance to any medications used to treat asthma or allergies. If your medicine does not seem to be working well, you may be experiencing increased asthma or allergy symptoms that require a change in your care plan. Asthma or allergy ‘flare ups’ often occur during pollen season, when you have a cold, or as air pollution levels increase. Consult your doctor about modifying your medications to help manage your symptoms better when they increase.
Q. What is exercise-induced asthma?
A. It is important to know the difference between being out of condition and having exercise-induced asthma. A well-conditioned person will usually only experience the symptoms of EIA with vigorous activity or exercise. Symptoms of exercise-induced asthma include coughing, wheezing, chest tightness and shortness of breath. Coughing is the most common symptom of EIA and may be the only symptom you have. The symptoms of EIA may begin during exercise and will usually be worse 5 to 10 minutes after stopping exercise. Symptoms most often resolve in another 20 to 30 minutes and can range from mild to severe. Occasionally some individuals will experience ‘late phase’ symptoms four to twelve hours after stopping exercise. Late-phase symptoms are frequently less severe and can take up to 24 hours to do away.
Q. Can I exercise if I have asthma?
A. With proper medical management you should be able to walk, climb stairs, run, and participate in activities, sports and exercise without experiencing symptoms. Do not let asthma keep you from leading an active life or from achieving your athletic dreams. Asthma hasn’t stopped many Olympic athletes like Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Amy Van Dyken and Tom Dolan.