Have you ever seen a sunrise or a rainbow or a work of art so beautiful that it seemed to take your breath away? Such a “breathless” feeling is usually in your mind due to excitement.

For millions of Americans, though, breathlessness is a feeling they feel — physically — all too often, and it’s not at all enjoyable.

Asthma (pronounced az-muh) is a long-term disease of the lungs that causes inflammation and narrowing of the airways. When this happens, people may experience tightness in their chests, shortness of breath and coughing.

Asthma affects both the young and the old, although it usually starts in childhood. In the United States, doctors estimate more than 22 million people have asthma. Of these, about 6 million of them are children.

Your airways (also called your “breathing tubes” or “bronchial tubes”) carry oxygen from the air through the windpipe (also called the “trachea”) to your lungs. Many people take breathing for granted. It’s simply automatic.

For people with asthma, though, breathing can sometimes be difficult because their airways are very sensitive. No one knows for sure why some people’s airways are more sensitive than others’, but doctors do believe asthma tends to run in families.

So if you have asthma, you may have gotten it because of your family’s genetic history. It’s not like a cold, though.

Asthma is not contagious and can’t be “caught” through the air. You’re either born with sensitive airways, or you’re not.

People with asthma may breathe perfectly fine much of the time. Occasionally, though, asthma flare-ups — what some people call “asthma attacks” — occur and make it very hard to breathe.

During an asthma attack, the airways swell and get narrower, making it feel like you’re trying to breathe through a straw.

If an asthma attack is really bad, a person may need to use an inhaler to breathe medicine directly into the lungs. People who have frequent asthma attacks also may take medicine on a daily basis to help prevent attacks from happening.

Asthma attacks can be caused by a variety of factors, called “triggers.” Common triggers include allergens (such as dust mites, mold and pollen), animal fur, perfume, chalk dust, cigarette smoke, cold air, an infection or even exercise.

People who have asthma spend a lot of time learning what triggers they are most sensitive to. Once they learn what triggers their asthma, they can plan how to avoid these things and breathe easier in the meantime.

Unfortunately, asthma can’t be cured. Many children notice that their asthma goes away or gets better over time, though. Some doctors believe this is a result of their airways getting bigger over time.

Even for those people who continue to struggle with asthma, today’s medicines and treatments allow them to manage the disease in a way that lets them live normal, active lives. With the help of a doctor and an asthma management plan, it’s possible to breathe easy most of the time!


16 Join the Discussion

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    • Asthma attacks can be quite scary, Natalia, for both the person having the attack, and the people who are trying to help that person. Thank you for sharing your concern for people with asthma, and also for leaving us this great comment! :-)

  1. Dear, Wonderopolis

    I liked your article. In fact, my brother has asthma and he has an inhaler. I LOVE your website. I want to go on your website EVERY DAY. THANKS FOR this article.

    • Thanks so much for sharing your personal connection to this Wonder of the Day®, Abdilahi! We appreciate hearing from our Wonder Friends, and are SO HAPPY to learn that you love visiting Wonderopolis every day! :-)

    • Hello, Luke! Thank you so much for leaving us this comment today and sharing your personal connection to this Wonder so that other Wonder Friends who don’t have asthma might learn a little more about what it’s like to live with it. We think you ROCK! :-)

    • Thanks for sharing your personal connection to this Wonder about asthma, Soccer Chicka! We’re sure glad that they make medicine (like inhalers) for our Wonder Friends who have asthma so you can share in all the activities you enjoy! :-)

    • Thanks for visiting this Wonder of the Day® about asthma, Alex! We really appreciate you sharing your personal connection to this Wonder. It helps other Wonder Friends learn more about what it’s like to live with asthma by hearing from super Wonder Friend like you who does. We think you rock! :-)

    • Thank you for sharing your personal connection to this Wonder of the Day®, Rahul! We’re sorry that it is hard for you to breathe sometimes because of your asthma. We appreciate you sharing your story, though, so other Wonder Friends might understand a little better what it is like to live with asthma. You are a GREAT Wonder Friend! :-)

  2. I sure am glad that I don’t have asthma, and I really feel bad for the people who do especially the ones who have had an asthma attack. My friend has asthma and so does my sister. It so sad that it is so common.

    • Thanks for sharing your comment with us, Girly Pearly 2000! We bet it’s tough to have asthma, but it’s important to listen to your body and recognize the signs of an attack, too! We sure are glad for medicine that helps keep all of us safe when asthma attacks occur! :)

    • We’re sorry that you have asthma, Jordy! Some of us in Wonderopolis have it too and know that it can be terrible! Thanks for sharing your comment with us! We appreciate you, Wonder Friend! :)

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Have you ever wondered…

  • What causes asthma attacks?
  • How many people have asthma?
  • What should you do if you or a friend has an asthma attack?

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Try It Out

Do you have asthma? Millions of children in the United States have asthma. In fact, it’s one of the main reasons many kids regularly miss school.

If you have asthma — or if you have a classmate or friend who has asthma — you might want to learn more about what to do in case they have asthma flare-ups. You can also help them plan for the future by creating a personalized asthma action plan.

Knowing the types of things that can trigger asthma can help you or your friends avoid asthma flare-ups. To learn more about the different types of asthma triggers, check out Dusty, the Asthma Goldfish, and His Asthma Triggers Funbook!


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Use Science NetLinks’ Sailing in the Vendée Globe lesson to follow the adventures of Skipper Rich Wilson as he sailed around the world in 2009 in the Vendée Globe race. Learn how Skipper Wilson’s asthma affected his voyage.


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