Asthma is a chronic illness involving the respiratory system in which the airway occasionally constricts, becomes inflamed, and is lined with excessive amounts of mucus, often in response to one or more triggers. These episodes may be triggered by such things as exposure to an environmental stimulant (or allergen)such as cold air, warm air, moist air, exercise or exertion, or emotional stress. In children, the most common triggers are viral illnesses such as those that cause the common cold. This airway narrowing causes symptoms such as wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, and coughing. The airway constriction responds to bronchodilators. Between episodes, most patients feel well but can have mild symptoms and they may remain short of breath after exercise for longer periods of time than the unaffected individual. The symptoms of asthma, which can range from mild to life threatening, can usually be controlled with a combination of drugs and environmental changes.

Public attention in the developed world has recently focused on asthma because of its rapidly increasing prevalence, affecting up to one in four urban children

Signs and symptoms

In some individuals asthma is characterized by chronic respiratory impairment. In others it is an intermittent illness marked by episodic symptoms that may result from a number of triggering events, including upper respiratory infection, stress, airborne allergens, air pollutants (such as smoke or traffic fumes), or exercise. Some or all of the following symptoms may be present in those with asthma: dyspnea, wheezing, stridor, coughing, an inability for physical exertion. Some asthmatics that have severe shortness of breath and tightening of the lungs never wheeze or have stridor and their symptoms may be confused with a COPD-type disease.

An acute exacerbation of asthma is referred to as an asthma attack. The clinical hallmarks of an attack are shortness of breath (dyspnea) and either wheezing or stridor. Although the former is "often regarded as the sine qua non of asthma, some patients present primarily with coughing, and in the late stages of an attack, air motion may be so impaired that no wheezing may be heard. When present the cough may sometimes produce clear sputum. The onset may be sudden, with a sense of constriction in the chest, breathing becomes difficult, and wheezing occurs (primarily upon expiration, but can be in both respiratory phases).

Signs of an asthmatic episode include wheezing, rapid breathing (tachypnea), prolonged expiration, a rapid heart rate (tachycardia), rhonchous lung sounds (audible through a stethoscope), and over-inflation of the chest. During a serious asthma attack, the accessory muscles of respiration (sternocleidomastoid and scalene muscles of the neck) may be used, shown as in-drawing of tissues between the ribs and above the sternum and clavicles, and the presence of a paradoxical pulse (a pulse that is weaker during inhalation and stronger during exhalation).

During very severe attacks, an asthma sufferer can turn blue from lack of oxygen, and can experience chest pain or even loss of consciousness. Just before loss of consciousness, there is a chance that the patient will feel numbness in the limbs and palms may start to sweat. Feet may become icy cold. Severe asthma attacks, which may not be responsive to standard treatments (status asthmaticus), are life-threatening and may lead to respiratory arrest and death. Despite the severity of symptoms during an asthmatic episode, between attacks an asthmatic may show few or even no signs of the disease.


Asthma is defined simply as reversible airway obstruction. Reversibility occurs either spontaneously or with treatment. The basic measurement is peak flow rates and the following diagnostic criteria are used by the British Thoracic Society:
  • ≥20% difference on at least three days in a week for at least two weeks;
  • ≥20% improvement of peak flow following treatment, for example:
  • 10 minutes of inhaled β-agonist (e.g., salbutamol);
  • six week of inhaled corticosteroid (e.g., beclometasone);
  • 14 days of 30mg prednisolone.
  • ≥20% decrease in peak flow following exposure to a trigger (e.g., exercise).

In many cases, a physician can diagnose asthma on the basis of typical findings in a patient's clinical history and examination. Asthma is strongly suspected if a patient suffers from eczema or other allergic conditions—suggesting a general atopic constitution—or has a family history of asthma. While measurement of airway function is possible for adults, most new cases are diagnosed in children who are unable to perform such tests. Diagnosis in children is based on a careful compilation and analysis of the patient's medical history and subsequent improvement with an inhaled bronchodilator medication. In adults, diagnosis can be made with a peak flow meter (which tests airway restriction), looking at both the diurnal variation and any reversibility following inhaled bronchodilator medication.

Testing peak flow at rest (or baseline) and after exercise can be helpful, especially in young asthmatics who may experience only exercise-induced asthma. If the diagnosis is in doubt, a more formal lung function test may be conducted. Once a diagnosis of asthma is made, a patient can use peak flow meter testing to monitor the severity of the disease.

In the Emergency Department doctors may use a capnography PMID 16187465 which measures the amount of exhaled carbon dioxide along with pulse oximetry which shows the amount of oxygen dissolved in the blood, to determine the severity of an asthma attack as well as the response to treatment.

Differential diagnosis

Before diagnosing someone as asthmatic, alternative possibilities should be considered. A clinician taking a history should check whether the patient is using any known bronchoconstrictors (substances that cause narrowing of the airways, e.g., certain anti-inflammatory agents or beta-blockers).

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which closely resembles asthma, is correlated with more exposure to cigarette smoke, an older patient, less symptom reversibility after bronchodilator administration (as measured by spirometry), and decreased likelihood of family history of atopy.

Pulmonary aspiration, whether direct due to dysphagia (swallowing disorder) or indirect (due to acid reflux), can show similar symptoms to asthma. However, with aspiration, fevers might also indicate aspiration pneumonia. Direct aspiration (dysphagia) can be diagnosed by performing a Modified Barium Swallow test and treated with feeding therapy by a qualified speech therapist. If the aspiration is indirect (from acid reflux) then treatment directed at this is indicated.

A majority of children who are asthma sufferers have an identifiable allergy trigger. Specifically, in a 2004 study, 71% had positive test results for more than 1 allergen, and 42% had positive test results for more than 3 allergens.

The majority of these triggers can often be identified from the history; for instance, asthmatics with hay fever or pollen allergy will have seasonal symptoms, those with allergies to pets may experience an abatement of symptoms when away from home, and those with occupational asthma may improve during leave from work. Allergy tests can help identify avoidable symptom triggers.

After a pulmonary function test has been carried out, radiological tests, such as a chest X-ray or CT scan, may be required to exclude the possibility of other lung diseases. In some people, asthma may be triggered by gastroesophageal reflux disease, which can be treated with suitable antacids. Very occasionally, specialized tests after inhalation of methacholine — or, even less commonly, histamine — may be performed.

Asthma is categorized by the United States National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute as falling into one of four categories: intermittent, mild persistent, moderate persistent and severe persistent. The diagnosis of "severe persistent asthma" occurs when symptoms are continual with frequent exacerbations and frequent nighttime symptoms, result in limited physical activity and when lung function as measured by PEV or FEV1 tests is less than 60% predicted with PEF variability greater than 30%.

There is no cure for asthma. Doctors have only found ways to prevent attacks and relieve the symptoms such as tightness of the chest and trouble breathing.


During an asthma episode, inflamed airways react to environmental triggers such as smoke, dust, or pollen. The airways narrow and produce excess mucus, making it difficult to breathe. In essence, asthma is the result of an immune response in the bronchial airways.

The airways of asthmatics are "hypersensitive" to certain triggers, also known as stimuli (see below). In response to exposure to these triggers, the bronchi (large airways) contract into spasm (an "asthma attack"). Inflammation soon follows, leading to a further narrowing of the airways and excessive mucus production, which leads to coughing and other breathing difficulties.

  • Allergens from nature, typically inhaled, which include waste from common household pests, such as the house dust mite and cockroach, grass pollen, mould spores, and pet epithelial cells;
  • Indoor air pollution from volatile organic compounds, including perfumes and perfumed products. Examples include soap, dishwashing liquid, laundry detergent, fabric softener, paper tissues, paper towels, toilet paper, shampoo, hairspray, hair gel, cosmetics, facial cream, sun cream, deodorant, cologne, shaving cream, aftershave lotion, air freshener and candles, and products such as oil-based paint.
  • Medications, including aspirin, β-adrenergic antagonists (beta blockers), and penicillin.
  • Food allergies such as milk, peanuts, and eggs. However, asthma is rarely the only symptom, and not all people with food or other allergies have asthma.
  • Use of fossil fuel related allergenic air pollution, such as ozone, smog, summer smog, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide, which is thought to be one of the major reasons for the high prevalence of asthma in urban areas;
  • Various industrial compounds and other chemicals, notably sulfites; chlorinated swimming pools generate chloramines—monochloramine (NH2Cl), dichloramine (NHCl2) and trichloramine (NCl3)—in the air around them, which are known to induce asthma.
  • Early childhood infections, especially viral respiratory infections. However, persons of any age can have asthma triggered by colds and other respiratory infections even though their normal stimuli might be from another category (e.g. pollen) and absent at the time of infection. 80% of asthma attacks in adults and 60% in children are caused by respiratory viruses.
  • Exercise, the effects of which differ somewhat from those of the other triggers;
  • Allergenic indoor air pollution from newsprint & other literature such as, junk mail leaflets & glossy magazines (in some countries).
  • Hormonal changes in adolescent girls and adult women associated with their menstrual cycle can lead to a worsening of asthma. Some women also experience a worsening of their asthma during pregnancy whereas others find no significant changes, and in other women their asthma improves during their pregnancy.
  • Emotional stress which is poorly understood as a trigger.
  • Cold weather can make it harder for asthmatics to breathe.


The most effective treatment for asthma is identifying triggers, such as pets or aspirin, and limiting or eliminating exposure to them. Desensitization to allergens has been shown to be a treatment option for certain patients.

As is common with respiratory disease, smoking is believed to adversely affect asthmatics in several ways, including an increased severity of symptoms, a more rapid decline of lung function, and decreased response to preventive medications. Automobile emissions are considered an even more significant cause and aggravating factor. Asthmatics who smoke or who live near traffic typically require additional medications to help control their disease. Furthermore, exposure of both non-smokers and smokers to wood smoke, gas stove fumes and second-hand smoke is detrimental, resulting in more severe asthma, more emergency room visits, and more asthma-related hospital admissions. Smoking cessation and avoidance of second-hand smoke is strongly encouraged in asthmatics.

The specific medical treatment recommended to patients with asthma depends on the severity of their illness and the frequency of their symptoms. Specific treatments for asthma are broadly classified as relievers, preventers and emergency treatment. The Expert Panel Report 2: Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Asthma (EPR-2) of the U.S. National Asthma Education and Prevention Program, and the British Guideline on the Management of Asthma are broadly used and supported by many doctors. On August 29, 2007 the final Expert Panel Report 3: Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Asthma was officially released. Bronchodilators are recommended for short-term relief in all patients. For those who experience occasional attacks, no other medication is needed. For those with mild persistent disease (more than two attacks a week), low-dose inhaled glucocorticoids or alternatively, an oral leukotriene modifier, a mast-cell stabilizer, or theophylline may be administered. For those who suffer daily attacks, a higher dose of glucocorticoid in conjunction with a long-acting inhaled β-2 agonist may be prescribed; alternatively, a leukotriene modifier or theophylline may substitute for the β-2 agonist. In severe asthmatics, oral glucocorticoids may be added to these treatments during severe attacks.

For those in whom exercise can trigger an asthma attack (exercise-induced asthma), higher levels of ventilation and cold, dry air tend to exacerbate attacks. For this reason, activities in which a patient breathes large amounts of cold air, such as skiing and running, tend to be worse for asthmatics, whereas swimming in an indoor, heated pool, with warm, humid air, is less likely to provoke a response.

Researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS) have come up with convincing evidence that the answer to what causes asthma lies in a special type of natural "killer" cell. This finding means that physicians may not be treating asthma sufferers with the right kinds of drugs. For example, natural killer T cells seem to be resistant to the corticosteroids in widely used inhalers.

Relief medication

Symptomatic control of episodes of wheezing and shortness of breath is generally achieved with fast-acting bronchodilators. These are typically provided in pocket-sized, metered-dose inhalers (MDIs). In young sufferers, who may have difficulty with the coordination necessary to use inhalers, or those with a poor ability to hold their breath for 10 seconds after inhaler use (generally the elderly), an asthma spacer (see top image) is used. The spacer is a plastic cylinder that mixes the medication with air in a simple tube, making it easier for patients to receive a full dose of the drug and allows for the active agent to be dispersed into smaller, more fully inhaled bits. A nebulizer which provides a larger, continuous dose can also be used. Nebulizers work by vaporizing a dose of medication in a saline solution into a steady stream of foggy vapour, which the patient inhales continuously until the full dosage is administered. There is no clear evidence, however, that they are more effective than inhalers used with a spacer. Nebulizers may be helpful to some patients experiencing a severe attack. Such patients may not be able to inhale deeply, so regular inhalers may not deliver medication deeply into the lungs, even on repeated attempts. Since a nebulizer delivers the medication continuously, it is thought that the first few inhalations may relax the airways enough to allow the following inhalations to draw in more medication.

Relievers include:
  • Short-acting, selective beta2-adrenoceptor agonists, such as salbutamol (albuterol USAN), levalbuterol, terbutaline and bitolterol.
  • Tremors, the major side effect, have been greatly reduced by inhaled delivery, which allows the drug to target the lungs specifically; oral and injected medications are delivered throughout the body. There may also be cardiac side effects at higher doses (due to Beta-1 agonist activity), such as elevated heart rate or blood pressure; with the advent of selective agents, these side effects have become less common. Patients must be cautioned against using these medicines too frequently, as with such use their efficacy may decline, producing desensitization resulting in an exacerbation of symptoms which may lead to refractory asthma and death.
  • Older, less selective adrenergic agonists, such as inhaled epinephrine and ephedrine tablets, have also been used. Cardiac side effects occur with these agents at either similar or lesser rates to albuterol. When used solely as a relief medication, inhaled epinephrine has been shown to be an effective agent to terminate an acute asthmatic exacerbation. In emergencies, these drugs were sometimes administered by injection. Their use via injection has declined due to related adverse effects.
  • Anticholinergic medications, such as ipratropium bromide may be used instead. They have no cardiac side effects and thus can be used in patients with heart disease; however, they take up to an hour to achieve their full effect and are not as powerful as the β2-adrenoreceptor agonists.

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