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What is Asthma?

Asthma is a chronic lung condition where our airways are overly sensitive and as a result, shrink or become blocked in certain conditions, affecting our breathing.

When this happens, we experience asthma symptoms such as:

  • Wheezing
  • Coughing
  • Chest tightness
  • Shortness of breath

The signs and symptoms of asthma vary over time and in intensity. When the symptoms are more severe or sudden, it is known as an asthma attack.

Doctors diagnose asthma by checking your respiratory symptoms (how your breathing is) and history of asthma symptoms.

What’s responsible for these symptoms?

Asthma symptoms are usually the result of what is known as an asthma trigger, which is basically anything that sets off our asthma. Some examples can be allergens or irritants such as dust and smoke, situational triggers like the weather or stress, or medical conditions like a cold or flu.

How asthma causes those breathing problems

Taking a breath becomes hard because asthma can affect our airways in two ways.

Airway Inflammation

When you have asthma, the airways of your lungs can be more sensitive to allergens and to irritants — like smoke and dust. This causes the immune system to overreact and produce persistent inflammation in the airways. Inflammation can cause a swelling of the lining of the airways, reducing the amount of air that you take in or breathe out. In some cases, too much thick mucus is produced, which further obstructs the airways.

Your airways may be inflamed even when you are not having symptoms. When the airways stay inflamed over time, they may become more sensitive to asthma triggers. Then, when you are exposed to triggers, it is possible that your inflammation and symptoms may get worse. It is important to monitor your symptoms so that you can recognize when they are getting worse.

Airway Constriction

Airway constriction, or bronchoconstriction (airway constriction), often accompanies inflammation.

You may feel a tightening in your chest as the muscles around your airways constrict, or squeeze together. When this happens to airways already narrowed by inflammation, it may obstruct the airways further and make it even harder for you to breathe.

Do not let asthma get worse

With asthma, our airways might still be inflamed even if we do not feel any symptoms, and the constant inflammation makes our airways even more sensitive over time. Left untreated, future asthma attacks may get more severe. Our lungs could even suffer long-term damage.

Monitor your symptoms. If you find that your asthma attacks are getting worse or more frequent, you may have uncontrolled asthma – see your doctor for advice.

Who gets asthma?

Asthma is not contagious, nor are there any known causes of asthma. It can develop in anyone, at any age. According to various studies, these are some circumstances that might increase our risk of having or developing the condition:

  • People with a parent with asthma could be 3-6 times more likely to develop asthma than someone whose parents do not have asthma.
  • Asthma is more common in overweight people.
  • People with allergic conditions such as atopic dermatitis (eczema) or allergic rhinitis (hay fever) tend to develop allergic asthma.
  • Constantly being around asthma triggers in your home or office might lead to asthma.
  • No surprises here – any exposure to cigarette smoke increases the likelihood of asthma.

In addition, childhood asthma occurs more frequently in boys, but from age 40, adult asthma occurs more frequently in women. 

Asthma can be controlled

While asthma cannot be completely cured, most of us can in fact bring asthma under control and manage it without too much difficulty. Talk to your doctor to find out about what type of medication suits you and learn how to manage your asthma so you don’t miss out on life or its moments. Even if we have asthma, we can still breathe easy.

When asthma is under control, you will find that you experience less symptoms. And even those do not happen too often.

Asthma Toolbox

Asthma Control Test

This quick 5-question test indicates your level of asthma control.  

Asthma Action Plan

This is an important guide your doctor can prepare for you to help you stay ahead of asthma at all times.


  1. What is asthma? National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Website. Available at: Accessed 05 July 2015
  2. So You Have Asthma. A guide for patients and their families. NIH publication No. 13-5248, Originally printed 2007. Revised March 2013.
  3. Asthma. American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology Web site. Available at: Accessed 05 July 2015
  4. Global Strategy for Asthma Management and Prevention. Global Initiative for Asthma (GINA) 2015. Available at: Accessed 4 April 2016.
  5. What All Parents Need to Know about Childhood Asthma. Health Promotion Board website. Accessed 4 April 2016.
  6. Asthma Risk Factors. American Lung Association website. Accessed 5 April 2016.
  7. Who Is at Risk for Asthma? National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Accessed 5 April 2016.
  8. Asthma in Women. Partners Healthcare Asthma Center website. Accessed 5 April 2016.

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