262 million people globally are affected by asthma.

*according to the World Health Organization

Young hispanic woman coughing at street

What is asthma?

Asthma is a chronic lung disease that can be serious—even life-threatening in some cases.

As the bronchial tubes allow air to flow in and out of the lungs, asthma can make it difficult to breathe and cause additional symptoms, such as coughing and wheezing.

There are different levels of asthma and asthma severity categories, which vary from person to person.

Currently, there is no cure for asthma, but there are several treatments that make it a manageable chronic condition.

How common is asthma?

Asthma is one of the most common chronic conditions in the United States, impacting approximately 25 million people. So, if you live with asthma, you’re not alone! Here are some additional asthma facts:

Types of asthma

There are several different categories of asthma, all of which are treated uniquely. These categories can be divided into allergic and nonallergic asthma and by age of onset, like preschool, school age, and adult-onset.

Many asthma sufferers also have allergies and experience a type of asthma known as allergic asthma. Sometimes, otherwise healthy individuals will experience asthma during exercise, which is known as exercise-induced bronchoconstriction or, more commonly, as exercise-induced asthma.

Those who work in environments that contain fumes, gases, and other substances can also experience what is known as occupational asthma. Finally, millions of children develop asthma in their earliest years of development and have what is referred to as childhood asthma.

Other types of asthma include: 

  • Aspirin-induced asthma
  • Asthma-COPD overlap syndrome (ACOS)
  • Brittle asthma
  • Cough-variant asthma
  • Eosinophilic asthma
  • Nighttime asthma
  • Steroid-resistant asthma
  • Stress-induced asthma

Asthma symptoms

The symptoms of asthma can vary widely from one patient to the next. Signs of asthma can also look very different in children as compared to adults.

  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chronic coughing
  • Lack of sleep due to wheezing and/or coughing
  • Tightening or pain in the chest

Asthma attack symptoms

An asthma attack is also known as an asthma exacerbation, meaning that your normal symptoms during an asthma flare-up will worsen and intensify suddenly. Signs of an asthma attack can include:

  • A pale face
  • Sweating
  • Feelings of anxiety or panic
  • Blue lips and fingertips
  • Severe shortness of breath
  • Severe chest tightness or pressure
  • Intense coughing or wheezing
  • A rattling sound in the chest
  • Symptoms that don’t respond to a quick-acting inhaler

How long does an asthma attack last?

Asthma flare-up durations depend on what triggered the asthma attack, as well as how long the airways have been inflamed. On average:

  • Mild episodes will last a few minutes and may be spontaneous. Often, these can be resolved with quick-acting medicine.
  • Severe episodes can last hours to days. The right treatment can shorten these episodes.

What is an asthma attack, exactly?

Asthma affects the lungs by causing inflammation in the bronchial tubes. During an asthma attack, this inflammation increases and can be exacerbated by a tightening of the muscles around the airways.

Attacks can happen in the presence of allergens, like pollen, pet dander and dust mites, and non-allergic triggers, including pollution and smoke. Very cold temperatures, stress, and exercise can all trigger an attack, as well.

Doctor diagnosing asthma on a girl

How is asthma diagnosed?

As with the diagnosis of most physical conditions, diagnosing asthma begins with your doctor taking a thorough medical history. In addition to the medical history, a doctor will also conduct breathing tests that gauge the strength and performance of the lungs.

Common breathing tests include spirometry, which involves the patient taking a deep breath and exhaling into a sensor. Patients who have a history of allergies may also be given a FeNO test, which detects how much inflammation there is in the lungs. Allergy patients may also undergo additional allergy testing during the diagnostic process.

If the patient is a child, the doctor will also discuss the symptoms and timing of symptoms with a parent or guardian during the diagnostic process. Common asthma tests are not accurate in children younger than 5, so careful observation and documentation of symptoms by the parent can help greatly in diagnosing asthma in children.

How is asthma treated?

There is no known cure for asthma. Patients, however, can control the symptoms of asthma using a range of medications. Controller medications for asthma can be both inhaled and oral medications, including:

  • Corticosteroids (fluticasone, mometasone, ciclesonide)
  • Long-acting beta-agonists, or LABAs
  • Anticholinergics
  • Leukotriene modifiers (oral medication)


Quick relief

In some severe cases, patients may need injections or infusions known as biologics.

For quick relief from symptoms during an asthma attack, patients can use short-acting beta-agonists such as albuterol, pirbuterol, and levalbuterol. It is important to note that these are quick-relief medications and should not be used in place of controller medications. Additionally, if a patient requires quick relief medications more than twice a week, it may be necessary to make adjustments to a patient’s prescribed controller medications.


Chronic condition

As a chronic condition, asthma also requires ongoing management and careful adherence by the patient to asthma treatment guidelines. This involves not only taking medication on a regular and consistent basis, but also engaging in lifestyle choices that help manage asthma in the long term. Patients with asthma should avoid smoking and avoid known triggers such as allergens, pollution, etc.

Frequently asked questions

What’s the best treatment for asthma?

Can asthma go away on its own?

Are there home remedies for asthma?

How do allergies affect asthma?