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Asthma is a chronic disease that affects the function and lining of the airways or tubes of the lungs. It narrows the airways and makes it difficult to breathe.

Asthma may be caused by a combination of factors including environment, genetics and biology.

Asthma Triggers

You may experience asthma symptoms if your airways have increased sensitivity to certain triggers. The triggers cause the lining of the airways to swell and produce extra fluid called mucus. At the same time, the muscles around the outside of the airway tighten in response to the irritation. All of these reactions narrow the airways and make it difficult to breathe. This response is often referred to as an asthma attack.

Possible triggers of an asthma attack include:

  • Viral illness
  • Exercise
  • Cold weather
  • Sinusitis
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Sulfites used in dried fruits and wine
  • Medications, such as aspirin, ibuprofen and beta-blockers
  • Exposure to irritants or allergens, including:
    • Cigarette smoke
    • Smoke from a wood-burning stove
    • Pet dander
    • Dust
    • Chemicals
    • Mold and mildew
    • Pollen
    • Smog or air pollution
    • Perfumed products

Risk Factors

Factors that may increase you risk for asthma include:

  • Regularly breathing in cigarette smoke, including second-hand smoke
  • Regularly breathing in industrial or agricultural chemicals
  • A family member who has asthma
  • History of multiple respiratory infections during childhood
  • Being overweight
  • Having allergies

Asthma symptoms include:

  • Wheezing
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Trouble breathing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cough
  • Chest pain
  • Limited exercise tolerance, difficulty keeping up with peers

Diagnostic Testing for Asthma

Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history and perform a physical exam.

Tests may include:

  • Peak flow exam — you'll blow quickly and forcefully into a special instrument that measures your output of air
  • Pulmonary function testing (PFTs) — you'll breathe into a machine that records information about your lung function
  • Reversibility testing — you'll take medicine so your doctor can observe how much they relieve airflow obstruction
  • Bronchoprovocation testing — your doctor will look at lung function after you're exposed to methacholine to stimulate asthma; it can help to confirm asthma in unclear cases
  • Exhaled nitric oxide — this marks airway inflammation and helps monitor asthma control

Your doctor may also do some allergy tests to help determine if allergies are causing your symptoms. The test may include skin pricks or blood tests.


Call 434.243.3675.


Content was created using EBSCO’s Health Library. Edits to original content made by Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice.

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