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If you asked people on the street to define “asthma,” most would likely be able to describe general symptoms, such as difficulty breathing and shortness of breath. In fact, most probably know someone with the condition, or have it themselves.
But do you know what asthma really is? It’s a condition of chronic airway inflammation and bronchial hyperreactivity with increased mucus, and airway edema (i.e., swelling), obstruction, and narrowing. Airways become reactive to or irritated by common exposures, which leads to asthma symptoms (e.g., coughing [especially at night], difficulty breathing, chest tightness, shortness of breath, and wheezing).1
Whew, that’s a mouthful.
Basically, asthma decreases the space through which air can flow, causing discomfort and reducing the amount of air that can get into and out of the lungs. Think of what happens when you pinch a plastic straw and then try to drink water through it. You have to work harder and likely aren’t able to get as much liquid in each sip.
Now imagine having to work that hard for a single breath. It can be pretty scary, especially when it happens to a child. What’s more, even when people with asthma are otherwise “feeling fine,” the inflammation and hyperreactivity of the airways continues, eventually leading to persistent narrowing and remodeling of those airways.2
In other words, the straw gets smaller and smaller over time as tissue thickens.
In people with asthma, allergens (such as pollen and dust mites) and irritants (such as pollution and cigarette smoke) in the air can trigger a reaction above and beyond what someone without asthma would experience. That reaction is what causes the inflammation and tightening of the airway.
Here’s what airway remodeling looks like:2
Since asthma is a chronic condition, there is no cure. That’s why management is a key component of treatment, and there are tangible things you can do to help minimize the risk of an asthma attack. Learn how to take control of your symptoms here.