Types, causes, treatment, and diagnosis of Asthma

Asthma is a chronic condition that affects the airways. It causes wheezing and breathing difficulties. There are different types, such as childhood, adult-onset, seasonal, and workplace-related asthma.

Asthma causes the inside walls of the airways, or the bronchial tubes, to become swollen and inflamed.

During an asthma attack, the airways swell, the muscles around them tighten, and it becomes difficult for air to move in and out of the lungs.

In 2019, around 7.8% of people in the United States had asthma. There are many types of this condition, and several factors can cause it or trigger an acute attack.

This article looks at the types, causes, and triggers of asthma, as well as how a doctor diagnoses it.

What is asthma?

Asthma is a long-term condition affecting the airways. It involves inflammation and narrowing inside the lungs, which restricts air supply.

A person living with asthma may experience:

  • tightness in the chest
  • wheezing
  • breathlessness
  • coughing
  • increased mucus production

An asthma attack occurs when the symptoms become severe. Attacks can begin suddenly and range from mild to life threatening.

In some cases, swelling in the airways can prevent oxygen from reaching the lungs. This means that oxygen cannot enter the bloodstream or reach vital organs. Therefore, people who experience severe symptoms need urgent medical attention.

A doctor can prescribe suitable treatments and advise a person on the best ways to manage their asthma symptoms.


Asthma can develop in many different ways and for many different reasons, but the triggers are often the same. They can include several broad categories, such as:

  • allergens, including dander and pollen
  • irritants, such as smoke and chemicals
  • exercise
  • other health conditions
  • weather
  • certain medications
  • strong emotions

The sections below discuss some common types of asthma:

Causes and triggers

Health experts do not know exactly what causes asthma, but genetic and environmental factors both seem to play a significant role.

Some factors, such as sensitization to an allergen, can be both a cause and a trigger. The sections below list some other causes and triggers:


According to a 2020 study, smoking during pregnancy appears to increase the risk of the fetus developing asthma later in life. Some people also experience an aggravation of asthma symptoms while pregnant.


According to a 2018 study, obesity is both a risk factor for and a disease modifier of asthma in both children and adults.

A person with obesity may experience more frequent and severe symptoms and a decreased quality of life. They may also not respond to medications as well.


Allergies develop when a person’s body becomes sensitized to a specific substance. Once the sensitization has developed, the person will be susceptible to an allergic reaction each time they come into contact with the substance.

Allergic asthma is the most common type of asthma. Inhaling an allergen typically causes a person’s asthma symptoms to occur.

Smoking tobacco

According to the ALA, smoking cigarettes can trigger asthma symptoms.

Moreover, secondhand smoke can cause damage to the lungs as well. This can reduce a person’s response to treatment and decrease airflow in the lungs.

Environmental factors

Air pollution, both at one’s home and outdoors, can affect the development and triggers of asthma.

Some allergens inside the house include:

  • mold
  • dust
  • animal hair and dander
  • fumes from household cleaners and paints
  • cockroaches
  • feathers

Other triggers in the home and outdoors include:

  • pollen
  • air pollution from traffic and other sources
  • ground-level ozone


A doctor will often take into account a person’s symptoms, family and personal medical history, and test results.

When the doctor makes their diagnosis, they will also note the type of asthma a person has based on their triggers.

It can be helpful for a person to keep a log of their symptoms and possible triggers to help the doctor reach an accurate diagnosis. This should include information about potential irritants in the home, school, or workplace.

The sections below discuss some other tests a doctor may conduct to help diagnose asthma:

Physical examination

The doctor will likely focus on the upper respiratory tract, the chest, and the skin. They will likely listen for signs of wheezing, which can indicate an obstructed airway and asthma.

They may also check for:

  • a runny nose
  • swollen nasal passages
  • any growths on the inside of the nose

They will also check the skin for signs of eczema or hives.

Asthma tests

The doctor may carry out a lung function test to assess how well the lungs are working.

A spirometry test is the most common type of lung function test healthcare professionals use to diagnose asthma.

A person will need to breathe in deeply and then breathe out forcefully into a tube. The tube links up to a machine called a spirometer, which shows the speed at which they expel the air from their lungs.

Other tests

Other tests for diagnosis include:

  • Challenge test: This test allows a doctor to assess how triggers such as cold air, exercise, or inhaled medications affect a person’s breathing.
  • Allergy testing: A doctor may use a skin or blood test to check for a response.
  • Blood test: A doctor may recommend a blood test to check for elevated eosinophils and immunoglobulin E, which is an antibody the immune system generates in people with allergic asthma.

A doctor may also order a FeNo test, as well as additional tests to rule out other conditions.


Treatment options for asthma are increasing and improving. The goal of treatment is to:

  • help a person breathe better
  • reduce the number of attacks
  • increase the number of activities they can engage in

A person should work with a healthcare professional to develop the most suitable treatment plan for them. Some current options for treatment include quick-relief medication and long-term control medications.

Quick-relief medications help alleviate symptoms, while long-term control medication reduces the number of attacks if a person takes it daily.

Asthma medications currently include:

  • long- and short-term bronchodilators that relax muscles around the airways
  • antibiotics for a bacterial pneumonia or bronchitis
  • anti-inflammatory medications, such as inhaled corticosteroids, for long-term maintenance, or oral steroids for an acute attack
  • a combination of bronchodilators and corticosteroids



The ALA recommends that everyone living with asthma — even exercise-induced bronchoconstriction, formerly known as exercise-induced asthma — exercise regularly. Regular exercise has several health benefits, including helping improve a person’s overall lung function and capacity.

Before starting a new exercise program, a person should consult a doctor about what activities are safe for them. It is possible the doctor will recommend a person avoid certain activities.

Otherwise, a person can generally participate in sports, exercise, and other physical activities if they take steps to control their asthma with medications.

Other suggestions for safe and effective exercising for a person to try include:

  • covering their nose and mouth during exercise in cold weather
  • making sure they adequately warm up first
  • taking time to properly cool down afterward
  • avoiding activities outside when air quality is poor

If a person experiences pain at any time during exercise, they should stop and use a fast-acting inhaler. If symptoms get worse, they should contact a doctor.


Asthma is a chronic inflammatory condition that causes swelling in the airways. It can affect people of any age, and the symptoms can range from mild to severe.

In most cases, effective treatment can help a person with asthma live a full and active life.


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