A chronic inflammatory disease of the lungs and airways, asthma affects approximately 32 million Americans. Children ages five to 17 suffer from this disease more often than adults; it's the leading cause of school absenteeism and pediatric hospital admissions. Episodes can be induced by a variety of factors working alone or in combination. While asthma can be treated successfully, it is considered a chronic disease without a cure.
Asthma is characterized by the inflammation that occurs when your bronchi, or the airways carrying air into your lungs, come in contact with irritants or "triggers". Environmental or emotional, examples of triggers include: chemicals, dust, food additives, strong odors, pollution, changes in air temperature, pollen, animal dander, tobacco smoke, stress or strong emotions. Triggers will cause airways to swell, mucus to build up, and the muscles in the lungs and bronchial tubes to tighten. As the airway narrows and breathing difficulty increases, the individual can experience chest tightness, wheezing, and shortness of breath. An acute episode is known as an asthma "attack".
The most common symptoms of an asthma attack are relatively painless. However, they can progress to increasing tightness or pressure in the chest, mild to moderate shortness of breath, a wheezing or whistling sound ranging from faint to clearly audible while breathing, along with coughing, that may be accompanied by phlegm or mucus.
Early warning signs of the onset of an asthma episode include signs of a cold, frequent cough – especially at night, losing your breath easily, feeling tired or weak when exercising, or difficulty sleeping. Some people with asthma experience only mild and infrequent episodes; for them, the condition is an occasional inconvenience. For others, episodes can be frequent and possibly life threatening, requiring emergency medical treatment.
If you have asthma or suspect that your child has asthma, contact a physician to have the symptoms monitored regularly. Together with the physician, you can develop a plan to manage your asthma that may include medication and/or lifestyle changes that can reduce your risk of an episode. Steps to prevention include eating right, getting regular exercise and sleep, avoiding excessive stress, identifying and avoiding your triggers, watching for warning signs, following appropriate treatment, and seeking medical help immediately when needed.
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