Conditions & Treatments

Asthma

Asthma is a chronic, inflammatory disease in which the airways become sensitive to allergens (any substance that triggers an allergic reaction).

Asthma

Illustration of  the anatomy of the respiratory system, adult
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What is asthma?

Asthma is a chronic, inflammatory lung disease involving recurrent breathing problems. The characteristics of asthma are three airway problems:

  • Obstruction

  • Inflammation

  • Hyperresponsiveness

What are the symptoms of asthma?

Common symptoms of asthma are listed below. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently.

In some cases, the only symptom is a chronic cough, especially at night, or tightness, noisy breathing, or wheezing. Some people think they have recurrent bronchitis, since respiratory infections usually settle in the chest in a person predisposed to asthma.

Asthma may resemble other respiratory problems, such as emphysema, bronchitis, and lower respiratory infections. Many people with asthma do not know they have it. Consult your doctor for a diagnosis.

What causes asthma?

The basic cause of the lung abnormality in asthma is not yet known, although health care professionals have established that it is a special type of inflammation of the airway that leads to the following:

  • Contraction of airway muscles

  • Mucus production

  • Swelling in the airways

It is important to know that asthma is not caused by emotional factors—as was commonly believed years ago. Emotional anxiety and nervous stress can cause fatigue, which may affect the immune system and increase asthma symptoms or aggravate an attack. However, these reactions are considered to be more of an effect than a cause.

What happens during an asthma attack?

People with asthma have acute episodes when the air passages in their lungs get narrower, and breathing becomes more difficult. These problems are caused by an oversensitivity of the lungs and airways:

  • Lungs and airways overreact to certain triggers and become inflamed and clogged.

  • Breathing becomes harder and may hurt.

  • There may be coughing.

  • There may be a wheezing or whistling sound, which is typical of asthma. Wheezing occurs because:

    • Muscles that surround the airways tighten, and the inner lining of the airways swells and pushes inward.

    • Membranes that line the airways secrete extra mucus.

    • The mucus can form plugs that further block the air passages.

    • The rush of air through the narrowed airways produces the wheezing sounds.

What are the risk factors for an asthma attack?

Although anyone may have an asthma attack, it most commonly occurs in:

  • Children and adolescents between age 5 and 17 

  • Females

  • People living in urban communities

  • Exposure to tobacco smoke 

Other factors include:

  • Family history of asthma

  • Personal medical history of allergies

How is asthma diagnosed?

To diagnose asthma and distinguish it from other lung disorders, doctors rely on a combination of medical history, physical examination, and laboratory tests, which may include:

  • Spirometry. A spirometer is a device used by your doctor that assesses lung function. Spirometry is the evaluation of lung function with a spirometer. The test is performed by blowing as hard as possible into a tube connected to a small machine (a spirometer) that measures the amount of air breathed out and in as well as the speed it is breathed out. This is one of the simplest, most common pulmonary function tests and may be necessary for any/all of the following reasons:

    • To determine how well the lungs receive, hold, and utilize air

    • To monitor a lung disease

    • To monitor the effectiveness of treatment

    • To determine the severity of a lung disease

    • To determine whether the lung disease is restrictive (decreased airflow) or obstructive (disruption of airflow)

  • Peak flow monitoring (PFM). A device is used to measure the fastest speed in which a person can blow air out of the lungs. To use a peak flow meter, a person takes a deep breath in and then blows as hard and fast as possible into a mouthpiece. During an asthma or other respiratory flare-up, the large airways in the lungs slowly begin to narrow. This will slow the speed of air leaving the lungs and can be measured by a PFM. This measurement is very important in evaluating how well or how poorly the disease is being controlled.

  • Chest X-rays. This diagnostic test uses invisible electromagnetic energy beams to produce images of internal tissues, bones, and organs onto film.

  • Blood tests. Blood tests are used to analyze the amount of carbon dioxide and oxygen in the blood.

  • Allergy tests.

What is the treatment for asthma?

Specific treatment for asthma will be determined by your doctor based on:

  • Your age, overall health, and medical history

  • Your symptoms

  • Extent of the disease

  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies

  • Expectations for the course of the disease

  • Your opinion or preference

As of yet, there is no cure for asthma. However, it can often be controlled with prescription medications that may help to prevent or relieve symptoms, and by learning ways to manage episodes.

How is asthma managed?

People with asthma can learn to identify and avoid the things that trigger an episode. They can also educate themselves about medications and other asthma management strategies:

  • Asthma is a chronic disease. It has to be cared for all the time—not just when symptoms are present:

    • The four parts of continually managing asthma are:

      • Identify and minimize contact with asthma triggers.

      • Understand and take medications as prescribed.

      • Monitor asthma to recognize signs when it is getting worse.

      • Know what to do when asthma gets worse.

  • Working with a health care professional is the best way to take care of asthma.

  • The more information a person with asthma has, the better asthma can be controlled.

Four components of asthma treatment

  1. The use of objective measures of lung function—spirometry, peak flow expiratory flow rate—to access the severity of asthma, and to monitor the course of treatment.

  2. The use of medication therapy designed to reverse and prevent the airway inflammation component of asthma, as well as to treat the narrowing airways.

  3. The use of environmental control measures to avoid or eliminate factors that induce or trigger asthma flare-ups, including the consideration of immunotherapy.

  4. Patient education that includes a partnership among the patient, family members, and the doctor.

Treatment Programs


Massachusetts General Hospital understands that a variety of factors influence patients' health care decisions. That's just one reason why we're dedicated to ensuring patients understand their diagnosis and treatment options. Because a single option might not serve all patients, we offer a wide range of coordinated treatments and related services across the hospital. Patients should consult with their primary care doctor or other qualified health care provider for medical advice and diagnosis information.

Select a treatment program for more information:



Digestive Healthcare Center

  • Weight Center
    The Massachusetts General Hospital Weight Center is a fully integrated center within the Digestive Healthcare Center that supports the spectrum of needs for people of all ages seeking help with obesity and weight loss.
Imaging

  • Adult Medicine Imaging
    The Adult Medicine Imaging Program at Massachusetts General Hospital Imaging offers a wide range of diagnostic exams and minimally invasive, image-guided treatments, all provided using leading-edge equipment and interpreted by specialty-trained radiologists.
  • Pediatric Imaging
    The Pediatric Imaging Program at Massachusetts General Hospital Imaging specializes in ensuring the safety and comfort of child patients while providing the latest technology and the expertise of specialized pediatric radiologists.
MassGeneral Hospital for Children

  • Pediatric Pulmonary Medicine
    The Division of Pediatric Pulmonary Medicine at MassGeneral Hospital for Children is a well-established clinical, training and research program. The group provides multidisciplinary comprehensive consultation, diagnostic and management services for a wide array of pulmonary conditions.
  • Inspired Health: Inspiring Kids with Asthma for Lifelong Health
    Inspired Health is a unique program based in the MassGeneral Hospital for Children’s Division of Pediatric Pulmonology that offers expert evaluation and management of both asthma and weight by a multidisciplinary team whose primary goal is to help families identify and implement simple and practical strategies for improving health.
  • Pediatric Asthma Program
    The Pediatric Asthma Program at MassGeneral Hospital for Children provides diagnosis and treatment for all children with asthma with particular focus on difficult-to-control asthma, diagnostic dilemmas and second opinions.
General and Gastrointestinal Surgery

  • Bariatric and Metabolic Surgery Program
    The Bariatric and Metabolic Surgery Program at Massachusetts General Hospital offers a full spectrum of safe and effective surgical procedures for obesity, weight disorders and metabolic disease.
Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine

  • Partners Asthma Center
    Mass General's Asthma Clinic, part of the Partners Asthma Center, provides comprehensive care for patients with asthma and related diseases.

Our commitment to quality and safety

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