How Does a Person Get Asthma?

Reviewed on 5/11/2022
Girl with asthma using a nebulizer
The cause of asthma is unknown. Common triggers that can cause asthma symptoms include exposure to an allergen (pollen, ragweed, dust mites, mold, or animal dander), irritants in the air (smoke, strong odors, chemical fumes), exercise, extreme weather conditions, and others.

Asthma is a chronic respiratory disease that causes inflammation and narrowing of the airways, making it difficult to breathe. 

It is unknown how a person gets asthma, but it’s usually caused by an immune system response to a substance in the lungs.

Common triggers that can cause asthma symptoms include: 

  • Exposure to an allergen (such as pollen, ragweed, dust mites, mold, or animal dander)
  • Irritants in the air (such as smoke, strong odors, chemical fumes) 
  • Exercise
  • Extreme weather conditions
  • Panic 
  • Illness, especially respiratory illness or the flu 
  • Certain medications
  • Some foods
  • Physical display of strong emotion that affects normal breathing patterns, such as laughing, crying, or shouting
  • Stress

What Are Symptoms of Asthma?

Asthma symptoms often:

  • Come and go over time 
  • Worsen at night or in the morning
  • Begin or get worse due to viral infections, such as a cold
  • May be triggered by allergies, exercise, cold air, or hyperventilation from laughing or crying

Symptoms of asthma include:

  • Coughing, especially at night or early morning, during exercise, or when laughing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing 
  • Chest tightness

Asthma attacks are episodes of significantly worse symptoms that require a change in the usual treatment. Asthma attacks may start gradually or suddenly and can be life-threatening. 

People with asthma may also experience stress, anxiety, and depression, because asthma can result in work and school absences and an inability to participate in their usual activities.

How Is Asthma Diagnosed?

The diagnosis of asthma is made with a patient history and a physical exam. Tests used to help diagnose asthma or rule out other causes include: 

  • Pulmonary function tests
    • Spirometry    
    • Peak expiratory flow (PEF)    
    • Bronchoprovocation tests    
    • Fractional exhaled nitric oxide (FeNO) tests    
    • Provocation (Trigger) Tests
  • Allergy skin or blood tests, in patients who have a history of allergies

What Is the Treatment for Asthma?

The goal of treatment for asthma is to control symptoms and reduce asthma attacks with the least side effects. Doctors may prescribe a personalized “asthma action plan” to patients that provides instructions for the patient to follow at home to manage their asthma.

Asthma is usually treated with two kinds of medications: quick-relief and long-term control. Allergy shots (immunotherapy) can also be helpful.

Quick-relief medications are bronchodilators that expand the airways, and are taken at the first sign of asthma symptoms for immediate relief:

  • Short-acting inhaled beta2-agonists (inhalers)
  • Anticholinergics

Long-term asthma control medications are taken daily to prevent symptoms and asthma attacks and include:

  • Inhaled corticosteroids 
  • Antileukotrienes or leukotriene modifiers 
  • Long-acting inhaled beta2-agonists (usually combined with an inhaled corticosteroid)

For severe asthma, traditional treatments may be inadequate, and other therapies may be used, such as:

  • Biologics
  • Oral corticosteroids
  • Immunotherapy, useful when asthma is triggered by an allergy
    • Allergy shots (subcutaneous immunotherapy [SCIT])
    • Sublingual (under the tongue) tablets or drops (sublingual immunotherapy [SLIT])
Reviewed on 5/11/2022
Image Source: iStock Images