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Asthma FAQs (cont.)

What Is an Asthma Attack Like?

Patient Comments

People with asthma react in different ways to risk factors and triggers. Some experience asthma symptoms when they are exposed to several factors or triggers at once, while for others, exposure to one trigger alone is enough to set off an attack. Some people have more severe attacks when they are exposed to more than one trigger.

When people with asthma are exposed to their triggers, their immune systems start trying to fight off the allergens. This results in inflammation (swelling) of the walls or lining of the air passages that blocks or narrows the airways. This makes breathing difficult (like breathing through a straw for a long time) and noisy, and/or it causes coughing.

When breathing passages become irritated or infected, an asthma attack is triggered. Asthma attacks do not always occur immediately after someone is exposed to a trigger. Depending on the person and the particular trigger, an attack can happen hours or even days later. It may occur during either the day or night.

The main asthma symptom is wheezing. Wheezing is a whistling, hissing sound when breathing. This noise is made by the sound of air passing through narrowed tubes (air passages). Wheezes can occur during inhaling or exhaling but are usually heard while exhaling.

Other symptoms include breathlessness, chest tightness or pain, coughing, difficulty speaking, prolonged shortness of breath, and extreme fatigue.

What Is the Difference Between Allergies and Asthma?

Allergies and asthma are different, though they may have related reactions and some of the body's chemicals that are involved in allergies are also involved in asthma. An allergy is an inflammatory reaction or response to a specific substance. Allergic reactions can involve nasal membranes, the eyes, the skin, the tongue, and the breathing passages in severe reactions. Allergy symptoms include an itchy, stuffy, or runny nose, sneezing, itchy, red, or irritated skin, and itchy, burning, or watery eyes.

Asthma is a chronic inflammatory lung (lower respiratory) disease that causes difficulty breathing.

The things that trigger allergies can also trigger asthma attacks. Allergy symptoms may be a sign of irritants in the air that can provoke asthma symptoms, and allergy attacks can lead to asthma attacks. With both allergies and asthma, people's immune systems react to fight off the allergens (the material that sets off the reaction). The resulting inflammation causes the airways in people with asthma to become significantly narrowed. The swelling that is called inflammation comes from increased mucus and an increased number of white blood cells in the walls of the air passages. In addition, the air passages are narrowed by the contraction of the muscle that surrounds the lining of the airways. These irritated muscles contract in excess, like a rubber band that closes the air tubes even further.

People with asthma also usually have allergies. Hay fever (allergic rhinitis) and sinusitis are quite common in asthma patients.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 4/4/2016

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