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Harvard Commentaries
Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Facts And Misconceptions About Asthma

July 29, 2008

Learn The Basics
Facts And Misconceptions About Asthma
Facts And Misconceptions About Asthma
How much do you know about asthma? Learn what is fact and what is fiction.
InteliHealth/Harvard Medical Content


Facts About Asthma
If you have asthma, you're already familiar with its chest-clutching, short-of-breath feeling. If you don't have asthma but want to know what it feels like, try this: Take two of those little straws that people use to stir coffee or tea. Clamp your lips tightly around them, and hold your nose. Now breathe. Feel how hard your lungs work to get air in and out? Or how quickly you get short of breath? That's full-blown asthma.
Of course, there are milder examples of symptoms, such as a whistle or wheeze when you breathe, a tightness in your chest or a nagging cough. But all asthma symptoms stem from the same problem — you are breathing through tighter airways ("smaller straws") in your lungs.
Asthma is a chronic disease and it can have a variety of different triggers. This can cause asthma to be experienced in different ways by different people. For some people, the trigger is an allergy to cats or to mold. Exercise can be a trigger, as can chemicals in the air, cigarette smoke or a cold or the flu. Some triggers are so stealthy that some people are never able to identify them.
No matter what your triggers are, the end result is the same. The airways tighten up and narrow, making it hard to move air in and out of the lungs. The whistle or wheeze you can sometimes hear when someone with asthma breathes is the sound of air being forced through these constricted airways.


Misconceptions About Asthma
Some people have a misconception that all asthma is severe. This may come from outdated or overly dramatic images of asthma. If you've ever read Lord of the Flies, or seen the movie, you might remember Piggy, the pudgy, bespectacled boy who can't keep up with the pack because of his asthma. Perhaps you've seen a TV program that shows someone with asthma suddenly start to wheeze and then use an inhaler for immediate resolution.
Controller medicines have put a new face on asthma. Most asthma attacks are caused by or worsened by inflammation. Preventing inflammation by avoiding the things that trigger it and by blocking it with drugs can help people with asthma to have relatively mild symptoms. People who respond well to anti-inflammatory treatment may have few, if any, full-blown asthma attacks. New drugs that target inflammation — some delivered by inhalers, some in pill form — can ease asthma symptoms and help to limit the side effects of older drugs, such as heart palpitations and nausea.
Overall, the goal of managing and treating asthma is to make it easier for you to lead a normal, healthy life. Managing your asthma even when you don't have symptoms will help keep you out of the emergency room and minimize long-term damage to your lungs.




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