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Asthma is a chronic disease of the lungs and the upper airways. It is estimated that 17 to 22 million people in the United States have asthma.1,2  Asthma attacks, if severe enough, can result in death.1,2,3 It is thus important to understand its triggers, effects, symptoms and treatment.

There are many potential asthma triggers. These include allergens, respiratory infections, foods, medications, strong odors, tobacco smoke, reflux disease, weather changes, exercise, stress, and emotional anxiety.1 People who have asthma have airways that are very sensitive and react strongly to one or more of these triggers.

When a trigger is present, the airways swell and the muscles surrounding them tighten. The airway cells produce more mucus than usual. All these cause the passageway to become narrow.2 When this happens, a person has an asthma attack, or exacerbation. Symptoms include wheezing, coughing, chest tightness, and shortness of breath.1,2,3 Medicines for asthma fall under two categories.

There are quick-relief medications that are given to provide relief for the symptoms that the patient is experiencing at present.1 The other category consists of  long-term control medications that must be taken everyday.1 A review based on 67 RCTs compares the effectiveness and cost of beta-2 agonists and corticosteroids.4

Asthma can affect people from all ages. Many patients have asthma starting childhood, and there are guidelines available for the treatment of childhood asthma.5 Fortunately, in a study that tracked the natural history of asthma, researchers discovered that many children can outgrow this illness.

However, there are some elderly adults who do have exacerbations, and a study shows that their asthma may even remain undiagnosed.7 Some researchers recommend that physicians and their patients set up a system for managing asthma over the telephone, which can help reduce hospitalizations due to exacerbations.8


American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Topic of the Month: January 2007: Asthma Facts. Updated January 1, 2007. Accessed December 2, 2008.
National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. What is asthma? Updated September 2008. Accessed December 2, 2008.
Medline Plus [Internet]. Bethesda (MD): National Library of Medicine (US); [updated 2008 Nov 26; reviewed 2008 Sep 18; cited 2008 Dec 2]; [about 4 p.]. Available from

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