Frequently Asked Questions about Asthma

Q: What is asthma?
A: Asthma is a chronic, inflammatory lung disease caused by oversensitivity of the lungs and airways, which overreact to certain "triggers" by becoming inflamed and clogged, causing recurrent breathing problems, wheezing, and coughing.

Q: Can asthma be cured?
A: There is no cure for asthma, but it can be controlled with proper treatment. Patients with asthma can take prescribed medications to prevent or relieve their symptoms, and they can learn ways to manage their asthma attacks. They also can learn to identify and avoid the things that trigger their asthma.

Q: Will I always have asthma?
A: Not necessarily. Some people stop having asthma attacks as they get older. Others become adept at avoiding the things that trigger their asthma. In most cases, however, asthma is a chronic disease that requires care and treatment. The better one can adjust to it, the better one can become at preventing or minimizing his or her breathing problems.

Q: Is asthma a psychological or emotional problem?
A: No. At one time, many people believed asthma was caused by psychological or emotional problems. Today we know this is untrue, and that asthma is a physiological disease. In some people, however, strong emotions or anxiety can trigger asthma episodes.

Q: How is asthma diagnosed?
A: Because its symptoms can resemble those of other respiratory problems—such as emphysema, bronchitis, and respiratory infections—asthma often goes undiagnosed. Many people live with the disease for years without knowing they have it. They only know they have a chronic cough, often at night, or that they have difficulty breathing in cold air, especially while working or exercising. Some think they have chronic bronchitis.

To diagnose asthma, doctors use a combination of medical history, physical examination, and laboratory tests such as spirometry (a method of measuring the air taken into and expelled from the lungs), peak flow monitoring (a method of measuring how much air a person can expel from his or her lungs), chest x-rays, and blood or allergy tests.

Q: What does an asthma attack feel like?
A: The disease has various symptoms, which different asthma patients describe in various ways. One common description of an asthma attack (or "episode," as physicians prefer to call it) is that it feels like taking deep breaths of very cold air. The effort required to breathe becomes progressively greater, and the act of breathing may become painful. The patient may cough and wheeze, producing a gasping or whistling sound.

Some asthma sufferers describe a feeling of suffocation and overpowering tightness in the chest and throat. Others say the sensation of an acute asthma episode is similar to that which would result from taking a deep breath, holding it, and then, without exhaling, trying to inhale a second deep breath on top of the first.

Q: What causes these symptoms?
A: The symptoms of asthma result from a narrowing of the airways in the lungs. In an asthma episode, the muscles surrounding these airways constrict, becoming swollen and inflamed. This pushes them inward, further narrowing the passage. The membranes lining these airways begin to secrete extra mucus, which further blocks the air passages. As the patient tries to breathe, air forced through the narrowed bronchial passages produces a characteristic wheezing sound.

Q: Should people with asthma exercise?
A: Yes, if they are feeling well. Everyone who is physically able to do so can benefit from exercise. It is generally advisable to consult a physician before beginning any exercise program. Persons with asthma may need to take special precautions in cold weather or during seasons when pollen is in the air. They may be able to prevent exercise-induced asthma symptoms by using an inhaled bronchodilator before exercise.

Q: Should I limit my activity because of asthma?
A: With proper treatment and care to avoid the things that trigger their asthma, most asthma patients can live a full and active life. A physician can help them determine when to take medication that can prevent an asthma attack, such as before exercising, in cold weather, or when air pollution or airborne pollen levels are high.

Q: What signs tell a person their asthma is worsening?
A: There are several telltale signs: the development of asthma symptoms at night, when none existed previously; a drop in peak flow meter readings of 20 percent or more; the need to use a bronchodilator more often, etc. Patients who feel their asthma is growing worse should see their physician as soon as possible. The doctor may recommend a change in therapy, an adjustment to their medication dosage, or a different type of medicine.

Q: Don't children usually outgrow their asthma?
A: Up to half of all children who develop asthma between the ages of 2 and 10 do outgrow their asthma. Some find that their symptoms return as they reach their 30s or 40s, however.

Q: What support groups exist for persons with asthma?
A: There are several. Parents of children with asthma can contact the Allergy and Asthma Network/Mothers of Asthmatics, Inc., for information on a variety of advocacy activities for children with asthma. The AAN/MA has chapters across the country.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 31 May 2000

Last Modified: 17 Aug 2015