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Asthma is a chronic, inflammatory lung disease involving recurrent breathing problems. The characteristics of asthma are three airway problems:
Asthma may resemble other respiratory problems such as emphysema, bronchitis, and lower respiratory infections. It is under-diagnosed - many people with the disease do not know they have it. Sometimes the only symptom is a chronic cough, especially at night, or coughing or wheezing that occurs only with exercise. Some people think they have recurrent bronchitis, since respiratory infections usually settle in the chest in a person predisposed to asthma.
The basic cause of the lung abnormality in asthma is not yet known, although healthcare professionals have established that it is a special type of inflammation of the airway that leads to:
It is important to know that asthma is not caused by emotional factors - as commonly believed years ago. Emotional anxiety and nervous stress can cause fatigue, which may affect the immune system and increase asthma symptoms or aggravate an attack. However, these reactions are considered to be more of an effect than a cause.
Some scientists theorize that the decline in serious illness may be one factor in the increase of allergic asthma. They believe it is possible that an under-utilized immune system may overreact to lesser irritants, inappropriately triggering the release of histamine and other inflammatory substances in the lungs.
Other researchers believe that the increased amount of time children are spending indoors is increasing their exposure to carpeting and other allergen-triggers.
Although anyone may have an asthma attack, it most commonly occurs in:
Other factors include:
Children most susceptible to asthma attacks include the following:
People with asthma have acute episodes when the air passages in their lungs get narrower, and breathing becomes more difficult. These problems are caused by an oversensitivity of the lungs and airways.
To diagnose asthma and distinguish it from other lung disorders, physicians rely on a combination of medical history, physical examination, and laboratory tests, which may include: