|Back to article|
Asthma is a chronic disease that involves inflammation of the lungs. Airways swell and restrict airflow in and out of the lungs, making it hard to breathe. The word asthma comes from the Greek word for "panting." People with asthma pant and wheeze because they can’t get enough air into their lungs.
Normally, when you breathe in something irritating or you do something that causes you to need more air, like exercise, your airways relax and open. But with asthma, muscles in the airways tighten, and the lining of the air passages swells.
About 20 million Americans have asthma, including 9 million children. In fact, asthma is the most common chronic childhood illness. About half of all cases develop before the age of 10, and many children with asthma also have allergies.
Asthma can either be allergic or non-allergic. In allergic asthma, an allergic reaction to an inhaled irritant -- pet dander, pollen, dust mites -- triggers an attack. The immune system springs into action, but instead of helping, it causes inflammation. This is the most common form of asthma.
Non-allergic asthma does not involve the immune system. Attacks can be triggered by stress, anxiety, cold air, smoke, or a virus. Some people have symptoms only when they exercise, a condition known as exercise-induced asthma.
While there is no cure for asthma, it can be controlled. People with moderate to severe asthma should use conventional medications to help control symptoms. Complementary and alternative therapies, used under your doctor’s supervision, may help, but shouldn’t replace conventional treatment.
Most people with asthma may go for periods of time without any symptoms, then have an asthma attack. Some people have chronic shortness of breath that gets worse during an attack. Asthma attacks can last minutes to days, and can become dangerous if airflow to the lungs becomes severely restricted.
Primary symptoms include:
If you have any of these symptoms, seek emergency treatment:
Asthma is most likely caused by several factors. Genes play a part; you’re more likely to develop asthma if others in your family have it. Among those who are susceptible, being exposed to environmental factors such as allergens, substances that cause an allergic reaction, or infections may increase the chance of developing asthma.
The following factors may increase the risk of developing asthma:
Childhood asthma, in particular, can be triggered by almost all of the same things that trigger allergies, such as:
Other triggers include:
Asthma symptoms can mimic several other conditions, and your doctor will take a thorough history to rule out other diseases. You may also have lung function tests to measure how much air your lungs can hold and how much air you breathe out. Your doctor may use a spirometer to measure how much air you exhale and how quickly you get air out of your lungs. Other tests may include chest and sinus x-rays, blood tests, or allergy tests.
Asthma is classified as:
Although you can’t prevent asthma, you can take steps to reduce the number and frequency of attacks:
Avoiding asthma attacks, reducing inflammation, and preventing lung damage are the primary goals of treatment. The more you know about your condition, the more closely you can work with your doctor to develop an asthma action plan. To control asthma, you need to prevent exposure to allergic triggers and take medication as prescribed. You may need emergency medications during an asthma attack, but monitoring your breathing and taking your medications every day will help you control asthma over the long term.
In a severe attack, you may need to be hospitalized for oxygen and medications that are given intravenously (IV).
Medications for asthma are prescribed for two different purposes: to stop an immediate attack, and to control inflammation and reduce lung damage over the long term.
Quick relief medications -- These drugs are called bronchodilators and help open the airways when you have an attack.
Short-acting beta-adrenergic agonists start working immediately. These drugs include:
Sometimes, steroids are needed for an acute asthma attack. They can take longer to work (from a couple of hours to a few days) and include:
Long-term control -- These drugs are usually taken every day.
Inhaled corticosteroids reduce inflammation and have fewer side effects than oral corticosteroids. They include:
A class of drugs called leukotriene modifiers help reduce the production of inflammatory chemicals called leukotrienes that cause your airways to swell. They include:
Cromolyn (Intal), Nedocromil (Tilade) -- These medications, which are inhaled, can help prevent mild to moderate attacks and are used to treat exercise-induced asthma.
Theophylline (TheoDur) -- This medication helps open airways and prevent asthma symptoms, especially at night. Too much can cause serious side effects, so your doctor will monitor levels in your blood.
Omalizumab (Xolair) -- Used to treat allergic asthma when other medications haven't worked.
Nutrition and Dietary Supplements
Although there is no diet for asthma, people who have allergic asthma may also have food allergies that can make their asthma worse. If you think you may have food allergies, talk to your doctor about trying an elimination diet.
Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables that are high in antioxidants may also help you keep your asthma under better control. One study found that people with asthma who followed the Mediterranean diet had better control of asthma symptoms. Some studies have shown that people with asthma tend to have low levels of certain nutrients, but there is no evidence that taking supplements helps reduce asthma attacks. However, an overall healthy diet will help you get the nutrients you need and help your body deal with a long-term condition such as asthma.
The use of herbs is a time-honored approach to strengthening the body and treating disease. Herbs, however, can trigger side effects and interact with other herbs, supplements, or medications. For these reasons, herbs should be taken with care, under the supervision of a health care practitioner.
Some preliminary studies indicate that acupuncture may help reduce symptoms for some people with asthma, but not all studies agree. Acupuncture should be used in addition to, not as a replacement for, conventional medicine when treating asthma.
Although very few studies have examined the effectiveness of specific homeopathic therapies, professional homeopaths may consider the following remedies for the treatment of asthma based on their knowledge and experience. Before prescribing a remedy, homeopaths take into account a person's constitutional type-- your physical, emotional, and psychological makeup. An experienced homeopath assesses all of these factors when determining the most appropriate treatment for each individual.
Some people may find their symptoms get worse for a short time when starting on a homeopathic remedy. Because this may be dangerous for some people, be sure to work with a knowledgeable homeopath.
Because stress and anxiety can make asthma worse, including stress management techniques in your daily life may help reduce symptoms. These techniques do not directly treat asthma, however.
Warnings and Precautions
Long-term treatment with theophylline for asthma may reduce blood levels of vitamin B6.
Prognosis and Complications
People with asthma can live normal, active lives. Because asthma is a chronic illness, it requires self-care and monitoring over the long term, as well as close contact with your doctor. Most people with asthma have occasional attacks separated by symptom-free periods. Paying attention to your mood, lowering the stress in your life, and having a good emotional support system will help you take good care of yourself.
Aligne CA, Auinger P, Byrd RS, Weitzman M. Risk factors for pediatric asthma. Contributions of poverty, race, and urban residence. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2000;162(3 Pt 1):873-877.
Anandan C, Nurmatov U, Sheikh A. Omega 3 and 6 oils for primary prevention of allergic disease: systematic review and meta-analysis. Allergy. 2009 Jun;64(6):840-8. Epub 2009 Apr 7. Review.
Barros R, Moreira A, Fonseca J, et al. Adherence to the Mediterranean diet and fresh fruit intake are associated with improved asthma control. Allergy. 2008 Jul;63(7):917-23.
Biltagi MA, Baset AA, Bassiouny M, Kasrawi MA, Attia M. Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C and Zn supplementation in asthmatic children: a randomized self-controlled study. Acta Paediatr. 2009 Apr;98(4):737-42.
Birkel DA, Edgren L. Hatha yoga: improved vital capacity of college students. Altern Ther Health Med. 2000;6(6):55-63.
Burns JS, Dockery DW, Neas LM, Schwartz J, Coull BA, Raizenne M, Speizer FE. Low dietary nutrient intakes and respiratory health in adolescents. Chest. 2007 Jul;132(1):238-45. Epub 2007 May 2.
Chatzi L, Kogevinas M. Prenatal and childhood Mediterranean diet and the development of asthma and allergies in children. Public Health Nutr. 2009 Sep;12(9A):1629-34.
Chiang LC, Ma WF, Huang JL, Tseng LF, Hsueh KC. Effect of relaxation-breathing training on anxiety and asthma signs/symptoms of children with moderate-to-severe asthma: a randomized controlled trial. Int J Nurs Stud. 2009 Aug;46(8):1061-70.
Chu KA, Wu YC, Ting YM, Wang HC, Lu JY. Acupuncture therapy results in immediate bronchodilating effect in asthma patients. J Chin Med Assoc. 2007 Jul;70(7):265-8.
Ciarallo L, Brousseau D, Reinert S. Higher-dose intravenous magnesium therapy for children with moderate to severe acute asthma. Arch Ped Adol Med. 2000;154(10):979-983.
Ernst E. Breathing techniques -- adjunctive treatment modalities for asthma? A systematic review. Eur Respir J. 2000;15(5):969-972.
Fetterman JW Jr, Zdanowicz MM. Therapeutic potential of n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in disease. Am J Health Syst Pharm. 2009 Jul 1;66(13):1169-79.
Gazdol F, Gvozdjakova A, Nadvornikova R, et al. Decreased levels of coenzyme Q(10) in patients with bronchial asthma. Allergy. 2002;57(9):811-814.
Gdalevich M, Mimouni D, Mimouni M. Breast-feeding and the risk of bronchial asthma in childhood: a systematic review with meta-analysis of prospective studies. J Pediatr. 2001;139(2):261-266.
Gilliland FD, Berhane KT, Li YF, Kim DH, Margolis HG. Dietary magnesium, potassium, sodium, and children's lung function. Am J Epidemiol. 2002. 15;155(2):125-131.
Haby MM, Peat JK, Marks GB, Woolcock AJ, Leeder SR. Asthma in preschool children: prevalence and risk factors. Thorax. 2001;56(8):589-595.
Hackman RM, Stern JS, Gershwin ME. Hypnosis and asthma: a critical review. J Asthma. 2000;37(1):1-15.
Hijazi N, Abalkhail B, Seaton A. Diet and childhood asthma in a society in transition: a study in urban and rural Saudi Arabia. Thorax. 2000;55:775-779.
Huntley A, Ernst E. Herbal medicines for asthma: a systematic review. Thorax. 2000:Nov;55(11):925-9. Review.
Huntley A, White AR, Ernst E. Relaxation therapies for asthma: a systematic review. Thorax. 2002;57(20:127-131.
Joos S, Schott C, Zou H, Daniel V, Martin E. Immunomodulatory effects of acupuncture in the treatment of allergic asthma: a randomized controlled study. J Alt Comp Med. 2000;6(6), 519-525.
Kalliomaki M, Salminen S, Arvilommi H, Kero P, Koskinen P, Isolauri E. Probiotics in primary prevention of atopic disease: a randomized placebo controlled trial. Lancet. 2001;357(9262):1076-1079.
Kaur B, Rowe BH, Ram FS. Vitamin C supplementation for asthma (Cochrane Review). Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2001;4:CD000993.
Lehrer P, Feldman J, Giardino N, Song HS, Schmaling K. Psychological aspects of asthma. J Consult Clin Psychol. 2002;70(3):691-711.
Levine M, Rumsey SC, Daruwala R, Park JB, Wang Y. Criteria and recommendations for vitamin C intake. JAMA. 1999;281(15):1415-1453.
Li XM. Traditional Chinese herbal remedies for asthma and food allergy. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2007 Jul;120(1):25-31. Review.
Linde, K, Jobst K, Panton J. Acupuncture for chronic asthma (Cochrane Review). In: The Cochrane Library, Issue 3, 2001. Oxford: Update Software.
Mazur LJ, De Ybarrondo L, Miller J, Colasurdo G. Use of alternative and complementary therapies for pediatric asthma. Tex Med. 2001;97(6):64-68.
Mehta AK, Arora N, Gaur SN, Singh BP. Choline supplementation reduces oxidative stress in mouse model of allergic airway disease. Eur J Clin Invest. 2009 Jun 26. [Epub ahead of print]
Miller AL. The etiologies, pathophysiology, and alternative/complementary treatment of asthma. Altern Med Rev. 2001;6(1):20-47.
Nagakura T, Matsuda S, Shichijyo K, Sugimoto H, Hata K. Dietary supplementation with fish oil rich in omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in children with bronchial asthma. Eur Resp J. 2000;16(5):861-865.
Nakao M, Muramoto Y, Hisadome M, Yamano N, Shoji M, Fukushima Y, et al. The effect of Shoseiryuto, a traditional Japanese medicine, on cytochrome P450s, N-acetyltransferase 2 and xanthine oxidase, in extensive or intermediate metabolizers of CYP2D6. Eur J Clin Pharmacol. 2007 Apr;63(4):345-53.
Neuman I, Nahum H, Ben-Amotz A. Reduction of exercise-induced asthma oxidative stress by lycopene, a natural antioxidant. Allergy. 2000;55(12):1184-1189.
Newnham DM. Asthma medications and their potential adverse effects in the elderly: recommendations for prescribing. Drug Saf. 2001;24(14):1065-1080.
Okamoto M, Misunobu F, Ashida K, Mifune T, Hosaki Y, Tsugeno H et al. Effects of dietary supplementation with n-3 fatty acids compared with n-6 fatty acids on bronchial asthma. Int Med. 2000;39(2):107-111.
Okamoto M, Misunobu F, Ashida K, et al. Effects of perilla seed oil supplementation on leukotriene generation by leucocytes in patients with asthma associated with lipometabolism. Int Arch Allergy Immunol. 2000;122(2):137-142.
Raviv S, Smith LJ. Diet and asthma. Curr Opin Pulm Med. 2009 Sep 4. [Epub ahead of print]
Rohdewald P. A review of the French maritime pine bark extract (Pycnogenol), a herbal medication with a diverse clinical pharmacology. Int J Clin Pharmacol Ther. 2002;40(4):158-168.
Romieu I, Trenga C. Diet and obstructive lung diseases. Epidemiol Rev. 2001;23(2):268-287.
Rowe BH, Edmonds ML, Spooner CH, Camargo CA. Evidence-based treatments for acute asthma. [Review]. Respir Care. 2001;46(12):1380-1390.
Sathyaprabha TN, Murthy H, Murthy BT. Efficacy of naturopathy and yoga in bronchial asthma -- a self controlled matched scientific study. Ind J Physiol Pharmacol. 2001;45(10:80-86.
Shaheen SO, Newson RB, Rayman MP, Wong AP, Tumilty MK, Phillips JM, et al. Randomised, double blind, placebo-controlled trial of selenium supplementation in adult asthma. Thorax. 2007 Jun;62(6):483-90.
Shaheen SO, Sterne JA, Thompson RL, Songhurst CE, Margetts BM, Burney PG. Dietary antioxidants and asthma in adults: population-based case-control study. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2001;164(10 Pt 1):1823-1828.
Tamaoki J, Nakata J, Kawatani K, Tagaya E, Nagai A. Ginsenoside-induced relaxation of human bronchial smooth muscle via release of nitric oxide. Br J Pharmacol. 2000;130(8):1859-1864
Urata Y, Yoshida S, Irie Y, et al. Treatment of asthma patients with herbal medicine TJ-96: a randomized controlled trial. Respir Med. 2002 Jun;96(6):469-474.
Ziment I, Tashkin DP. Alternative medicine for allergy and asthma. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2000;106(4):603-614.
Conditions with Similar Symptoms
Learn More About
A.D.A.M., Inc. is accredited by URAC, also known as the American Accreditation HealthCare Commission (www.urac.org). URAC'saccreditation program is an independent audit to verify that A.D.A.M. follows rigorousstandards of quality and accountability. A.D.A.M. is among the first to achieve this important distinction for online health information andservices. Learn more about A.D.A.M.'s editorialpolicy, editorialprocess, and privacypolicy. A.D.A.M. is also a founding member of Hi-Ethics and subscribes to the principles of the Health on the Net Foundation (www.hon.ch.)
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or
for the diagnosis or treatmentof any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted
for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions.Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to
other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 2014 A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication ordistribution of the
information contained herein is strictly prohibited.