- Rhymes: -ætɪk
- Having the characteristics of asthma, as in an "asthmatic cough"
Asthma is a chronic condition involving the respiratory system in which the airways occasionally constrict, become inflamed, and are 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 such as an allergen, environmental tobacco smoke, cold or warm air, perfume, pet dander, 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 symptomsIn 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 who 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 commonly 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",
CauseAsthma is caused by a complex interaction of genetic and environmental factors that researchers do not fully understand yet. These factors can also influence how severe a person’s asthma is and how well they respond to medication. As with other complex diseases, many genetic and environmental factors have been suggested as causes of asthma, but not all of them have been replicated. In addition, as researchers detangle the complex causes of asthma, it is becoming more evident that certain environmental and genetic factors may only affect asthma when combined.
The hygiene hypothesis is a theory about the cause of asthma and other allergic disease, and is supported by epidemiologic data for asthma. For example, asthma prevalence has been increasing in developed countries along with increased use of antibiotics, c-sections, and cleaning products. All of these things may negatively affect exposure to beneficial bacteria and other immune system modulators that are important during development, and thus may cause increased risk for asthma and allergy.
EnvironmentalMany environmental risk factors have been associated with asthma, but a few stand out as well-replicated or that have a meta-analysis of several studies to support their direct association:
- Poor air quality, from traffic pollution or high ozone levels, has been repeatedly associated with increased asthma morbidity and has a suggested association with asthma development that needs further research.
- Environmental tobacco smoke, especially maternal cigarette smoking, is associated with high risk of asthma prevalence and asthma morbidity, wheeze, and respiratory infections.
- Antibiotic use early in life has been linked to development of asthma in several examples; it is thought that antibiotics make one susceptible to development of asthma because they modify gut flora, and thus the immune system (as described by the hygiene hypothesis). However, as with all association studies, replication is important before genetic variation (such as a single nucleotide polymorphism, or SNP) in a certain gene is thought to influence asthma. Through the end of 2005, 25 genes had been associated with asthma in six or more separate populations: