Asthma is a disease of the lungs. The airways of people who have asthma are extra sensitive to the things they’re allergic to (called allergens) and to other irritating things in the air (called irritants).

Asthma symptoms start when allergens or other irritants cause the lining of the airways to become inflamed (swollen) and narrow. The muscles around the airways can then spasm (contract rapidly), causing the airways to narrow even more. When the lining of the airways is inflamed, it produces more mucus. The mucus clogs the airways and further blocks the flow of air. This is called an “asthma attack.”

An asthma attack occurs when excess mucus causes your air tubes to swell and tighten. Asthma attacks can be mild, moderate or severe. Symptoms of an asthma attack include the following:

  • Coughing
  • Feeling breathless
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Wheezing (breathing that makes a hoarse, squeaky, musical or whistling sound)
  • Cough with mucus
  • Difficulty breathing and talking
  • Trouble sleeping

Your asthma can flare up for many different reasons. Allergies can make your asthma symptoms get worse. Viral infections (such as a cold), tobacco, pollutants (such as wood smoke), cold air, exercise, fumes from chemicals or perfume, sinus infections and heartburn can all cause a flare-up. For some people, strong emotions or stress can trigger an asthma attack. Pay attention to the way these things affect your asthma. If you and your doctor figure out which things bother your asthma, you can start trying to address them.

Treatment of your symptoms involves avoiding things that cause asthma attacks, keeping track of your symptoms and taking medicine.