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Respiratory conditions

Asthma: causes, symptoms and managing asthma attacks

Approximately 2.5 million Canadians have asthma — a chronic (life-long) condition that affects breathing. If you’re one of them, you know how scary an asthma attack can be, especially if it’s a severe one. But you should also know that you there are ways to manage your asthma symptoms.

Let’s start with the basics.

Asthma attacks: how asthma affects your lungs

  • Airways are small passages in your lungs that allow air in and out. If you have asthma, your airways are sensitive and irritated. And this makes them:
    • Inflamed — red and swollen
    • Narrow — surrounding muscles squeeze your airways tight
    • Fill with mucus — making it harder to breathe

All this makes it difficult for you to breathe, resulting in an asthma attack. While not the same for everybody, common symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing

People with asthma usually have more than one symptom at a time, and they can appear without warning. These symptoms can be mild, moderate or severe, and not every attack you experience will come with the same symptoms or severity. It’s not uncommon to have asthma attacks from time to time and then not have one for a long period of time.

Asthma: common causes and risk factors

Asthma can affect anyone. And while certain risk factors have been identified, you can still get asthma without any of these factors present (although it’s less likely).

These risk factors include:

  • Genetics — approximately 3/5 of asthma cases are hereditary
  • Gender — more young boys than girls are diagnosed with asthma; after age 20, it’s an even split between men and women; at 40, more women than men are diagnosed
  • Cigarette smoking — increases your risk
  • Obesity — being overweight may make it harder to control your asthma

How to manage asthma attacks

While there is no cure, avoiding your asthma inducers and triggers can go a long way in helping to control your asthma.

Inducers are those things that make your airways inflamed, narrow and filled with mucus, such as:

Triggers irritate your airways and make your asthma symptoms worse. Common triggers include:

  • Exercise — especially if you’re having problems controlling your asthma in general
  • Smog
  • Cold or hot, humid air
  • Emotions — laughing, crying, feeling stressed or anxious
  • Smoking — even second-hand smoke
  • Scents
  • Wood smoke

Diagnosing asthma

Since many respiratory conditions have similar symptoms, it’s important to get diagnosed by a healthcare professional. This is especially true since a severe asthma attack can be a serious medical emergency.

Want more information and support? Search “asthma” in Find Support for organizations in your area.

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