Asthma is a chronic and incurable condition of the lungs that cause sufferers to wheeze, cough and experience tightening in the chest, making it difficult for them to breathe.
The exact cause of asthma is unknown. It is transmitted through genes; asthma is an inherited condition. But it may be more accurate to say the risk for developing asthma is genetic and that the symptoms of the disease are triggered by environmental factors.
People with asthma may wheeze when exhaling and have a chronic dry cough, particularly at night. They have trouble taking deep breaths, and their exhalation is shallow.
During an asthma attack, their breathing comes in short, shallow breaths. It appears they have trouble pulling air into their lungs. However, due to the inflammation of the airways, they are actually having trouble pushing the air out of their lungs.
Those who suffer from asthma have hypersensitive lungs and airways. When a trigger, or irritant, enters the lungs, the airways become inflamed. The inflammation causes the muscles around the airways to tighten. Mucus accumulates in the airways. The passages are constricted; the inflammation and mucus reduce the size of the airways.
During such an attack, asthmatics feel as if their chests are compressed, but the air in their lungs is trapped. The wheezing and gasping is caused by the effort to push air out and pull it back in.
There are two types of asthma: allergic asthma and non-allergic asthma.
Allergic, or extrinsic, asthma is when an environmental trigger is in the form of an allergen such as pollen, pet dander, cockroaches, tobacco smoke and mold.
Non-allergic, or intrinsic, asthma is associated with non-allergen triggers. Stress, exertion or exercise, chemical pollutants and cold and dry air can induce an asthma attack.
Both types of asthma require treatment. Fast-acting inhalers are needed to quell an asthma attack. The medications from inhalers act quickly to relax the muscles and to ease the pressure on the airways.
Long-term treatment, usually in the form of daily medication, prevents inflammation. Though still vulnerable to attacks even with the use of daily medication, asthmatics are less susceptible to the effects of the triggers.
According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, 20 million Americans have asthma. Though treatments are effective, it is still one of the least controlled conditions among sufferers. Nearly 500,000 hospital stays a year can be attributed to severe asthma attacks.
At the 2008 National Conference of State Legislatures, author Glen Anderson, in his paper "Asthma: A Growing Epidemic," states "Despite advances in medical treatment, asthma deaths have nearly doubled since 1980 and now total more than 5,000 per year."
Anderson goes on to explain that the causes of asthma are still unknown, and most states are lacking in comprehensive programs to track the epidemic.
Research indicates that genetics may be at the root of the cause of asthma, but such genetic traits move too slowly through generations to explain the epidemic. The transmission of asthma, then, may be genetic, but genetics cannot account for the epidemic.