Glossary On What is Asthma?

Running out of breath…

The term ‘asthma’ comes from the Greek word ‘aazein’ which means ‘to exhale with open mouth, to pant’. This has been derived from the typical symptoms of asthma, which is that of running out of breath.

Asthma (also called Bronchial Asthma) is a chronic disease that affects the tubes (bronchi) that carry air in and out of lungs. Whenever these tubes become inflamed due to any reason, three things happen:

  • The muscles of these tubes contract
  • There is excessive mucus production inside the tubes
  • Constriction of the tubes occurs due to the above two reasons

This ultimately causes difficulty in the passage of air in and out of the tubes leading to the feeling of breathlessness.

When asthma is diagnosed after 18 years of age, it is known as adult onset asthma. The most common causes of asthma are allergies (respiratory allergy). Adult onset asthma is more frequent in women as compared to men. Childhood asthma on the other hand is almost 3 times more prevalent in boys as compared to girls. Around puberty, the prevalence is more or less the same in girls and boys.

Developed countries all over the world experience higher incidence of asthma (breathlessness, respiratory allergy, wheeze) than developing countries. The ratio between these groups is however reversed for deaths due to asthma.

In people who are prone to this condition, the air tubes are very sensitive and react strongly to allergic or irritating things. The reaction (allergy) involves the above three steps and results in cough, wheezing and chest tightness. This state may persist in a milder form at most times; however it may worsen under certain conditions and at such times is called an ‘asthma attack’.

Severity of asthma may range from minor wheezing to life-threatening attacks. Long term medication is generally needed to control such causes of asthma, to prevent acute attacks.