About Asthma

Asthma is a disease that causes breathing problems. It inflames and narrows the airways that carry oxygen in and out of the lungs. People with asthma can have recurring periods of wheezing, chest tightness, shortness of breath and coughing. These breathing problems are called asthma attacks or episodes. Asthma is a chronic disease. In other words, people with asthma live with it every day.

Asthma is a serious public health problem in New York State and the nation. It affects about 10.0 percent (more than 400,000) of children and 9.9 percent (more than 1.5 million) of adults in New York State. Asthma takes its toll in many ways. It can result in lost nights of sleep and disruption of activities for the individual, as well as for his or her family. Asthma is the leading cause of school absenteeism in children, and parents frequently miss days from work as a result of their child's asthma.

Each year, nearly half a million people in the United States are hospitalized for asthma. Asthma ED visits and hospitalization rates tell us about the effect of asthma in a community due to environmental and household triggers, access to medical care, and the quality of disease management for asthma. ED visits and hospitalization shows us only the most severe cases of asthma; most people with asthma suffer the health effects without needing to go to hospital.

Risk Factors

The exact cause of asthma isn't known. Researchers think a combination of genetic (family history) and environmental factors interact to cause someone to develop asthma, often early in life. These include:

  • An inherited tendency to develop allergies, called atopy
  • Parents who have asthma
  • Certain respiratory infections during childhood
  • Contact with some airborne allergens or exposure to some viral infections in infancy or early childhood when the immune system is developing

Younger children (0-14 years) are at higher risk of developing asthma and having severe asthma episodes. Boys in these age groups tend to have higher rates of asthma than girls. However, that trend flips in adulthood with females (15 years and older) at higher risk than males in those same age groups.

Although asthma affects people at all socioeconomic levels, poor and minority populations are more likely to be hospitalized for the disease. The reasons for this are not fully understood but may include a lack of preventive care, nutrition, and exposure to higher levels of indoor and outdoor air pollution.

Asthma Triggers

What is more certain is that the allergens and irritants in the environment, called asthma triggers, can cause people with asthma to have asthma symptoms or attacks. There are many asthma triggers, and different people have different triggers. Here are some examples of triggers reported by asthma patients:

Pollens, molds, dust, animals, insects, foods, medications.
Infections and medical problems:
Colds, viruses, infections coughing, heartburn and acid reflux disease.
Tobacco smoke:
Cigarettes, cigars, pipes - yours or someone else's.
Cloth-upholstered furniture, bedding, carpets, brooms and vacuum cleaners without special air filters.
Air pollution:
Traffic, cars, trucks or buses, smoke-filled rooms, fireplaces and unvented heaters.
Outdoor air pollutants:
Ozone/smog, nitrogen oxides, particulates, sulfur dioxide.
Weather changes, cold air and humidity.
Running, heavy exertion, especially in cold weather.
Lying down and sleeping.
Fear, anger, laughing, crying, and stress.
Vapors from furnishings and carpeting, chemicals in paints, cleaning products, pesticides, room deodorizers, dust from wood, flour, latex gloves, incense, perfumes and scented candles.

Asthma Control

Good outpatient care, including regular asthma treatment and management, can help prevent severe asthma episodes and the need for hospitalization. Treating asthma symptoms as soon as possible can help prevent complications or more severe disease.

  • Work with the doctor to identify and minimize contact with asthma triggers. Strategies might include:
    • Avoiding smoke, smoking, and exposure to second hand smoke.
    • Keeping pets out of the home or at least out of rooms where someone with asthma sleeps.
    • Minimizing exposure to pests and the use of pesticides.
    • Avoiding strong odors or fumes from room deodorizers, cleaning chemicals, paint or perfumes.
    • Changing bedding, using pillowcase and mattress covers, dusting frequently, and eliminating bedroom carpeting, stuffed animals, and stuffed furniture from bedroom.
    • Avoiding mold and damp indoor conditions.
    • Avoiding exercising in cold temperatures.
    • Staying indoors when air pollution levels are high.
  • Take asthma medicines as prescribed.
  • Pay attention to asthma symptoms to recognize early signs of an asthma attack. The key to controlling asthma is taking medicine at the earliest possible sign of asthma symptoms.
  • Know what to do when asthma symptoms get worse. Work with the doctor on an asthma management plan and follow it to know what to do in case of an asthma attack or an emergency.

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