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Asthma: symptoms and causes

Asthma severity varies from person to person. Most people who have asthma develop their first symptoms while still young. About half show symptoms before age 10 and an additional third before age 40. But anyone can develop asthma at any time.

Symptoms of an asthma attack

  • Wheezing

  • Rapid breathing

  • Shortness of breath

  • Coughing 

  • A feeling of tightness in the chest

  • Rapid heart rate

  • Sweating

The severity of these symptoms may range from a mild shortness of breath with some coughing and wheezing to severe shortness of breath with chest tightness, difficulty speaking and gasping for air. After an asthma attack, the cough, mucus production and inflammation can continue for days or weeks.

What causes asthma?

For most people who have asthma, an attack is triggered by one or more factors. What causes an asthma attack in one person, however, may not bother another person who has asthma. These are common asthma triggers:

  • Allergens. Some people's immune systems overreact to specific allergens that normally are not harmful to the body, such as dust mites, molds, pollen, or animal dander. For some people, the allergic reaction to a specific allergen can cause an asthma episode.

  • Infections. Bacterial and viral infections are common asthma triggers. Viral infections, such as a cold or the flu, tend to trigger asthma episodes more often than bacterial infections, such as strep throat or sinus infections.

  • Irritants. Asthma symptoms are also aggravated by irritants such as smoke from tobacco or wood, air pollution, and various fumes and fragrances. Some of these irritants may trigger your asthma, although others may not.

  • Exercise. Aerobic exercise, such as jogging or cross-country skiing, sometimes causes asthma episodes, especially exercises that involve continuous movement over a long period in cold, dry air.

  • Aspirin and other NSAIDs. Aspirin and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs act as triggers in a small percentage of people with asthma. Because aspirin-induced asthma can be severe and come on very quickly, you should avoid taking aspirin and other NSAIDs if you have aspirin-sensitive asthma.

  • Emotions. Excitement, stress, fear, and other emotions may trigger asthma episodes in some people. The emotions themselves are not the direct triggers. The asthma episodes occur as a result of rapid or heavy breathing brought on by crying, laughing, or feeling anxious.

Asthma can normally be controlled with the proper medication or treatment plan. However, if you feel you cannot breathe, or your life is in danger, call 911 or go to a hospital immediately.

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