Asthma is an inflammatory disease of the airways to the lungs. It makes breathing difficult and can make some physical activities difficult or even impossible.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 27 million Americans have asthma. It’s the most common chronic condition among American children: 1 child out of every 12 has asthma.

To understand asthma, you need to understand a little about what happens when you breathe.

Normally, with every breath you take, air goes through your nose and down into your throat, into your airways, eventually making it to your lungs. There are lots of small air passages in your lungs that help deliver oxygen from the air into your bloodstream.

Asthma symptoms occur when the lining of your airways swell and the muscles around them tighten. Mucus then fills the airways, further reducing the amount of air that can pass through.

These conditions then bring on an asthma “attack,” the coughing and tightness in your chest that is typical of asthma.

Asthma symptoms

Symptoms of asthma include:

  • coughing, especially at night, when laughing, or during exercise
  • wheezing, a squealing or whistling sound made when breathing
  • tightness in the chest
  • shortness of breath
  • fatigue

The type of asthma that you have can determine which symptoms you experience.

Not everyone with asthma will experience these particular symptoms. If you think the symptoms you’re experiencing could be a sign of a condition such as asthma, make an appointment to see your doctor.

The first indication that you have asthma may not be an actual asthma attack.

Cause of asthma

No single cause has been identified for asthma. Instead, researchers believe that the breathing condition is caused by a variety of factors. These factors include:

  • Genetics. If a parent has asthma, you’re more likely to develop it.
  • History of viral infections. People with a history of viral infections during childhood are more likely to develop the condition.
  • Hygiene hypothesis. This hypothesis proposes that babies aren’t exposed to enough bacteria in their early months and years. Therefore, their immune systems don’t become strong enough to fight off asthma and other conditions.
  • Early allergen exposure. Frequent contact with possible allergens and irritants may increase your risk for developing asthma.

Asthma triggers

Certain conditions and environments may also trigger symptoms of asthma. These triggers include:

  • Illness. Respiratory illnesses such as the flu and pneumonia can trigger asthma attacks.
  • Exercise. Increased movement may make breathing more difficult.
  • Irritants in the air. People with asthma may be sensitive to irritants such as chemical fumes, strong odors, and smoke.
  • Allergens. Animal dander, dust mites, and pollen are just a few examples of allergens that can trigger symptoms.
  • Extreme weather conditions. Conditions such as very high humidity or low temperatures may trigger asthma.
  • Emotions. Shouting, laughing, and crying may trigger an attack.

Treatment of asthma

Treatments for asthma fall into three primary categories: breathing exercises, rescue or first aid treatments, and long-term asthma control medications.

Your doctor will determine the right treatment or combination of treatments for you based on the type of asthma you have, your age, and your triggers.

Breathing exercises

These exercises can help you get more air into and out of your lungs. Over time, this may help increase lung capacity and cut down on severe asthma symptoms. Your doctor or an occupational therapist can help you learn these breathing exercises for asthma.

Rescue or first aid treatments

These medications should only be used in the event of an asthma attack. They provide quick relief to help you breathe again. Examples include:

  • rescue inhalers and nebulizers, which are used with medicine that needs to be inhaled deep into the lungs
  • bronchodilators, which work to relax the tightened muscles in your lung
  • anti-inflammatories, which target inflammation in your lungs that could be preventing your breathing

If you think that someone you know is having an asthma attack, you should sit them upright and assist them in using their rescue inhaler or nebulizer. Two to six puffs of medication should help ease their symptoms.

If symptoms persist for more than 20 minutes, and a second round of medication doesn’t help, seek medical attention.

Long-term asthma control mediations

These medications should be taken daily to prevent symptoms. Some rescue treatments, such as inhalers and nebulizers, can be used daily. However, your doctor will need to adjust your dosages.

Several types of medications are used to treat asthma. 

Asthma home remedies

In general, over-the-counter (OTC) medicines and alternative remedies aren’t encouraged as treatments for asthma. If not treated properly, asthma can be life-threatening.

However, these home remedies may help stop symptoms from escalating and may be effective in an emergency:

Coffee or caffeinated tea

A chemical in caffeine acts similarly to the asthma drug theophylline. It opens up airways and may ease symptoms of asthma for up to four hours.

Essential oils

Inhaling eucalyptus essential oil may ease breathing difficulties brought on by asthma. Lavender and basil essential oils also show promise. However, for some individuals, inhaling essential oils may make asthma worse. Strong smells and chemicals can trigger asthma or worsen symptoms.

Mustard oil

This fatty oil, made from pressed mustard seeds, can be massaged into the skin to help open airways. Mustard oil is different than mustard essential oil, a medicinal oil which shouldn’t be applied directly to the skin.

Other home remedies may help ease symptoms of an asthma attack.

Types of asthma

The most common type of asthma is bronchial asthma, which affects the bronchi in the lungs.

Additional forms of asthma include childhood asthma and adult-onset asthma. In adult-onset asthma, symptoms don’t appear until at least age 20.

Asthma prevention

Because researchers have yet to identify the exact cause of asthma, it’s challenging to know how a person can prevent the inflammatory condition.

However, more information is known about preventing asthma attacks. These strategies include:

  • Avoiding triggers. Steer clear of chemicals, smells, or products that have caused breathing problems in the past.
  • Reducing exposure to allergens. If you’ve identified allergens, such as dust or mold, that trigger an asthma attack, avoid them as best you can.
  • Getting allergy shots. Allergen immuno therapy is a type of treatment that may help alter your immune system. With routine shots, your body may become less sensitive to any triggers you encounter.
  • Taking preventive medication. Your doctor may prescribe medicine for you to take on a daily basis. This medicine may be used in addition to the one you use in case of an emergency.

Your doctor can help you put an asthma action plan in place so that you know which treatments to use and when. 

Asthma is a disease that causes your airways to narrow because of swelling, tightening, or increased mucus.

While there is no cure, there are many treatment options that can prevent asthma flare-ups or treat symptoms when they occur.

Some natural or home remedies may help, but always talk to your doctor before adding anything to your asthma action plan.