A Guide to Understanding What Asthma Is (and Isn’t)


What Is Asthma?

What Is Asthma?

I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t have asthma. My childhood was fraught with frequent upper respiratory infections, which were complicated by my asthma. I carried around my “rescue” inhaler. Also, I knew my “daily” inhalers made me feel better, but I was resistant to use them, and my parents had to beg me to use them.

Who can relate?

As an adult living with asthma, the severity of my disease waxes and wanes. I still carry that rescue inhaler. My need for my “daily” inhaler is inconsistent.

There are periods in my life where my pulmonary function tests (PFTs) are pretty good, and I don’t need any inhalers – and other times where I hear the nurse suck in her breath and say, “Wow – let me bring these results to the doctor!”

And the inhaler is inevitably re-prescribed.

What Is Asthma?

The first thing you must understand about asthma is that it is chronic. This means that it does not go away, and it must be managed every day.

Generally, a person without asthma has airways that allow air to pass freely. Someone with asthma has airways that become inflamed. This inflammation causes the airways to become sensitive to “triggers” – and each person’s triggers are specific to them.

When exposed to a trigger (which we will discuss later in the article), the airway begins to swell again. This swelling makes the ability to breathe even worse.

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Asthma Statistics and Facts

If you feel like you are the only person with coffee – you are not alone!

25 million Americans suffer from asthma – that is 1 in 12 people. And that number is on the rise each year. The number of Americans diagnosed grew by 4.3 million between 2001 and 2009 – and the numbers grew even more for black children. For black children, there was a 50 percent increase in the diagnosis of asthma.

Asthma is also costly; the financial burden of asthma was approximately $56 billion – yes, billion – in 2007. This number approximates the total of medical costs, lost work time, lost school days, and early death that is caused by asthma. This number increased from $53 billion in 2002 – a six percent increase.

Unfortunately, asthma medications may be expensive! 40 percent of people (2 in 5 people) uninsured people with asthma are unable to afford their medications. Even people with insurance may not be able to afford their inhalers – 11 percent (1 in 9 people) are unable to afford their medications.

In the same vein, half of all people with asthma had an asthma attack in 2008 – which drives up that financial burden. Many of these asthma attacks are preventable. The problem? Only about 50 percent of adults with asthma have been instructed on how to avoid their asthma triggers!

Are There Different Types of Asthma?

When your physician states that you have a diagnosis of asthma, you may think that this is a blanket diagnosis. However, there are several different types.

Here are the most common types of asthma:

  • Allergy-induced asthma: A very simple explanation of this type of asthma is that it is induced by allergens that trigger the airways, which worsens asthma symptoms. It can be treated by avoiding allergens and taking allergy medications.
  • Exercise-induced asthma: Exercise triggers this type of asthma. This type of asthma can be a bit confusing because exercise triggers some people with asthma, but some people only have symptoms of asthma when they exercise. For people with this type of asthma, symptoms begin within minutes and improve shortly after stopping exercise. A rescue inhaler can improve symptoms.
  • Cough-variant asthma: In this type of asthma, a cough is the primary symptom. This type of asthma can be caused by many different things, such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), postnasal drip, sinusitis, or chronic rhinitis, for example. The underlying cause dictates treatment.
  • Occupational asthma: Just like it sounds, this type of asthma is caused by workplace triggers. Common occupations that may cause asthma include nurses, woodworkers, farmers, animal breeders, and hairdressers.
  • Nocturnal asthma: One of the more common types of asthma, this type occurs only at night. According to WebMD, “the chances of having symptoms are much higher during sleep because asthma is powerfully influenced by the sleep-wake cycle (circadian rhythms).” As such, more deaths related to asthma occur at night.

Next page: What causes asthma? Who gets asthma? And what are the symptoms of asthma?

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