What is Asthma?
Asthma is a long-lasting (chronic) disease of the lungs and airways (bronchi) that affects 5 people in every 100. In children, this figure is higher and rising.

Asthma is characterised by attacks of breathlessness, tight chest, wheezing and coughing which are caused by the airways becoming narrowed and inflamed. Some people may have these symptoms all of the time and others may be normal between attacks.

How do you get Asthma?
Asthma can arise at any age, but why some people have the disease and others don’t is not known. People with asthma have airways that are more sensitive than normal.

  • Doctors know, however, that asthma can sometimes run in families.  
  • Asthma attacks can be set off by many different things, these are called triggers. Examples include cold air, vigorous exercise and stress.  
  • These triggers may also include ‘allergens’. These are present in the environment and contain chemicals that trigger allergic reactions.  
  • Allergens include, for example, pollen, animal danders, house dust, pollution, some foods, perfumes and cigarette smoke.  
  • Allergens cause the lining of the airways to become swollen and inflamed. It produces extra mucus and the muscles of the airways tighten. There is then less room for the air to pass in and out.  
  • Attacks may be more frequent or severe in people who have a chest infection.

How serious is Asthma?
Asthma is not generally considered by doctors to be a serious illness in most people who have it, mainly due to the mildness of symptoms and the range of very effective medicines that control these symptoms and stop asthma worsening. Asthma does, however, have an effect on quality of life because attacks can be unpleasant and distressing and can restrict activity. Whilst most sufferers learn to live with and manage their condition, for some it can be disabling. In exceptional cases, asthma can be life-threatening, particularly if it is not treated adequately or promptly. For some of these, an attack is so severe that it results in death.

How long does Asthma last?
Asthma attacks come and go, with wide variation in the symptoms at different times. Many people with asthma have problems only occasionally but others struggle with it every day. Modern medicines control and relieve symptoms and so attacks may only last a few hours or minutes, but without treatment this may go on for several days. Some children grow out of asthma and some people are only affected at different times of the year. However, the period of time during which people may have asthma attacks can last for many years or throughout life.

How is Asthma treated?
There is no cure for asthma, but there are different types of medicines that will help to keep it under control and relieve symptoms.

  • Most sufferers must be given a type of medicine called a preventer, which is usually an anti-inflammatory steroid (of the glucocorticosteroid type) that treats the underlying causes of the asthma. These are usually given from an inhaler.  
  • Even if symptoms are not present, sufferers should keep taking the preventer medicines, as this will greatly decrease the risk of suffering asthma attacks. This will help many asthmatics to live a normal active life.  
  • One type of preventer can be taken as tablets and can be used together with steroids.  
  • Another sort of medicine is called a reliever that is used during an asthma attack and may be contained in an inhaler. This contains a bronchodilator medicine that opens up the air passages (bronchial tubes) of the lungs and works in a few minutes.

Johns Hopkins patient information

Last revised:

Diseases and Conditions Center

  A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z

All ArmMed Media material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.