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Asthma (AZ-muh) is a chronic disease of the lung airways. With asthma, the airways are inflamed (swollen) and react easily to certain "triggers," like smoke or dust mites. When the inflamed airways react, they get narrow and make it hard to breathe.

Common asthma symptoms are:

  • Coughing, especially at night
  • Wheezing — a whistling or squeaky sound when you breathe
  • Shortness of breath (feeling like you can't get enough air)
  • Chest tightness, pain, or pressure
  • Faster breathing or noisy breathing

When these symptoms get worse, you are having an asthma attack. You can die from a severe asthma attack.

Anybody can get asthma, but it is seen more often in African-Americans. More than 3 million African-Americans have asthma. African-Americans go to the hospital emergency room more than whites because of asthma. They also are almost three times more likely to die from asthma-related causes than whites. Asthma most often starts in childhood, and it is a top health problem for African-American children. Asthma is a leading reason why kids miss school.

We don't know what causes asthma. But these factors could increase your chances of getting asthma:

  • Air pollution
  • Poverty
  • Poor housing
  • Lack of education
  • Not being able to get to a doctor

Asthma has no cure, but it can be controlled. If you have asthma, you must take an active role in controlling it. This means seeing a doctor regularly, taking medicines your doctor gives you, and staying away from triggers that can cause an attack. Common asthma triggers include:

  • Secondhand smoke
  • Dust mites
  • Outdoor air pollution
  • Cockroaches
  • Pets
  • Mold
  • Cold air

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Content last updated: July 16, 2012.

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