What Is asthma?
Asthma is a common, chronic respiratory disease
Asthma has two main components that make it tough to breathe: inflammation (swelling and excess mucus build-up in the airways) and airway constriction (tightening of the muscles surrounding the airways). Treating both components of the disease is necessary for many patients to achieve optimal asthma control and to help prevent symptoms, including coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness. Whether mild or life-threatening, these symptoms can interfere with sleeping and disrupt daily life.
Asthma can occur at any age, although it most often begins early in life. Young children who have frequent respiratory infections and episodes of wheezing are at the highest risk of developing asthma that continues beyond age six. Other risk factors include having eczema (an allergic skin condition), or parents who have asthma. Physicians diagnose asthma based on medical history, a physical exam, results from lung function tests, and other measures.
While researchers don’t know asthma’s exact cause, they believe it’s the result of a combination of factors such as family genes and environment. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) continues to fund research on asthma to further understanding of the disease and the best ways to control asthma in children, adults, and special populations while working to accelerate the translation of new research discoveries into practice.
Asthma is a serious public health problem
Asthma currently affects about 25 million people in the United States, including seven million children. More than half of people with asthma experience at least one asthma attack (a worsening of asthma symptoms) each year. These attacks lead to more than 1.7 million emergency department visits and about 450,000 hospitalizations annually.
Moreover, while most deaths due to asthma are preventable, more than 3,000 people in the United States die from asthma each year. Altogether, the direct and indirect costs of asthma to the U.S. economy are projected to reach $20.7 billion in 2010.
Asthma is a growing challenge for disadvantaged communities
Asthma disparities are a persistent problem. Urban and socioeconomically disadvantaged communities bear a disproportionately greater asthma burden. These disparities also exist along ethnic and racial lines. Compared with the overall population, African American and Puerto Rican populations are more likely to have asthma, to experience greater asthma severity, and to have higher-than-average rates of hospitalization, emergency room visits, and deaths due to asthma.
Asthma can be controlled
Although there is no cure for asthma, with the right care, most people with asthma can minimize their symptoms, prevent asthma flare-ups, and improve their quality of life. To guide treatment decisions, clinicians can look to third and latest set of asthma guidelines issued by the NHLBI’s National Asthma Education and Prevention Program in 2007. With appropriate medical care, healthy environments, and well-informed and empowered patients, asthma can be controlled and patients can lead full, active lives. Health care providers and patients should accept nothing less.
Last Updated September 2011