Think of something that absolutely takes your breath away and leaves you wanting more. Bet you didn't say asthma, which leaves almost 19 million adults and 7.1 million children in America gasping for air and desperate for more oxygen. It's one of the leading causes of hospitalization and causes more than 3,400 deaths per year. As common as it is, there's still a lot of confusion about the condition. We answer your frequently asked questions below:

Q. What exactly is asthma?

A. The World Health Organization says it's a disease characterized by recurrent attacks of breathlessness and wheezing, which vary in severity and frequency from person to person. This condition is due to inflammation of the air passages in the lungs and affects the sensitivity of the nerve endings in the airways so they become easily irritated. In severe cases, the airway can become so inflamed that airflow is restricted completely, which causes the patient to suffocate.

Q. What happens during an asthma attack?

When an asthma attack occurs, something triggers the lining of the airway passages to swell, which causes them to narrow and restrict the flow of air in and out of the lungs. Frequency of attacks vary with some people having attacks only rarely and others, daily and evenly hourly.

Q. What does it feel like?

Most people with asthma, or asthmatics, describe it as "feeling tight" or as having a difficult time getting enough air in—but an even more difficult time getting air out—of the lungs. For people who have never had an asthma attack, it might feel a bit like a chest cold when mucous in the airways and lungs makes it difficult to breathe well. "I demonstrate to students by having them breathe only during a drinking straw for a full minute," says Karen Calhoun, MD, professor of Otolayrngology at The Ohio State University. "It starts out feeling easy, but by the end of a minute, most are very eager to open their mouths and take a good deep

Q. What does asthma sound like?

In some people an asthma attack comes with a wheezing or whistling sound when they breathe. In others, it sounds like coughing, as the asthmatic tries to cough up the mucous lining his airways. In others, there is no sound unless a physician is listening to the lungs with a stethoscope.

Q. What causes an asthma attack?

Asthma attacks can be caused by allergies, environmental irritants (like paint fumes or strong cleaners), exercise, hot or cold weather, and respiratory infections. Many people who live with asthma learn to recognize their triggers and can either avoid them or treat their asthma before an attack becomes dangerous.

Q. How is asthma treated?

Most people with asthma are treated with either short-term emergency medication (inhaled corticosteroids) or with a combination of long-acting preventive medications and sometimes antihistamines. Emergency inhalers like albuterol are intended for occasional use or when an attack comes on suddenly or when long-acting preventive medications aren't working.

Long-acting preventive medications are for asthmatics that have frequent attacks and are intended to prevent symptoms. Learning to recognize and avoid triggers is key and some patients need to meet with an allergist to determine what's causing their asthma attacks.

Q. Can asthma be cured?

The American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology says, "Although asthma symptoms are controllable, a cure for asthma has remained elusive. Preventive treatment, however, should minimize the difficulty an individual experiences with asthma, and allow a normal, active lifestyle."

Karen H. Calhoun, MD, FACS, FAAOA, reviewed this article.



Centers for Disease Control
Asthma FastStats

American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology