About Asthma

Asthma is a chronic lung disease characterized by inflammation of the airways in the lungs, making it harder to breathe. Asthma is a common condition, affecting roughly 1 in 12 people in the United States.

What Are the Symptoms of Asthma?

Asthma symptoms can be different for each person. Common symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath: the feeling that you can't get enough air into your lungs; it may occur only once in a while or often
  • Frequent cough: may be more common at night; may or may not cough up mucus
  • Wheezing: a whistling sound when you breathe; it may happen only when you exercise or have a cold
  • Chest tightness: especially common during cold weather or exercise; it can also be the first sign of a flare-up

What Are Asthma Attacks?

Disease of the pulmonary system. Illustration Asthma-inflamed bronchial tube lungs and airways, normal and asthmatic. Vector illustration.

During an asthma attack (also called a flare-up or exacerbation), the airways in the lungs become inflamed. This narrows the airways and makes it harder to move air in and out of the lungs. If these symptoms aren't controlled, asthma attacks can be life-threatening. These attacks can occur when exposed to an asthma trigger and can be life-threatening.

What Is an Asthma Trigger?

Some external factors, or triggers, can quickly bring on asthma symptoms. If exposed to these triggers, it is important to manage these symptoms before they require serious medical attention. The most common asthma triggers include:

  • Exercise
  • Weather, especially when it's cold and dry; but hot or humid weather can also trigger asthma symptoms
  • Air Pollution
  • Tobacco smoke
  • Strong smells or fumes from perfumes, car exhausts, or paints
  • Allergens like pet dander, pollen, or mold
  • Respiratory infections
  • Certain medications
  • Emotional events that change breathing patterns, like crying, laughing, or anxiety attacks

How Is Asthma Diagnosed?

Asthma requires a diagnosis from a pulmonologist. They will evaluate your symptoms, review your complete health history, conduct a physical exam, and perform a range of tests, including:

  • Pulmonary function testing
  • Bronchoprovocation
  • Allergy testing 
  • Screening for other diseases often associated with asthma, such as:
    • Sinusitis
    • Rhinitis
    • Nasal polyps
    • Gastrointestinal reflux 

Can Asthma Be Cured?

Asthma is a chronic lung disease, meaning there is no cure. Asthma treatment focuses on managing and controlling symptoms.

How Is Asthma Treated?

Medications can control severe symptoms and improve quality of life. Some medications are intended for quick relief as soon as symptoms start. Others are long-term daily medicines taken even when no symptoms are present. Both types of medication may be part of an asthma treatment plan.

Some forms of asthma do not respond to standard treatments like corticosteroids or bronchodilators. It may require a combination of medications to control your asthma. If your asthma doesn't respond to standard treatments, you should seek medical attention at the first sign of symptoms. Researchers are exploring new therapies for treatment-resistant asthma and are working to better understand the underlying mechanisms.

Asthma symptoms can change over time, so ongoing assessments and monitoring can help you manage symptoms more effectively. 

Because asthma symptoms can appear unexpectedly, it is important for patients to:

  • Understand the early warning signs of an asthma attack
  • Know their triggers
  • Use environmental control measures
  • Carry and know how to use their medications and inhalers
  • Adhere to their self-management plan

Patients play a key role in managing their asthma symptoms. Developing a self-management plan with your specialist and preparing for triggers can help control your asthma—and keep it from controlling you.

Asthma Care At Columbia

The John Edsall-John Wood Asthma Center provides comprehensive, state-of-the-art care to adults with asthma. Our team recognizes that each patient responds to asthma and treatments differently. Our pulmonologists work to create an individualized treatment plan focused on the patient's everyday quality of life. Patients benefit from rapid access to the latest research breakthroughs for the prevention and treatment of asthma. The center's strong focus on patient education can help patients learn to manage their asthma and improve their quality of life.

Learn More About the John Edsall-John Wood Asthma Center at Columbia