“It feels like someone or something is sitting on my chest and constricting my lungs so I can only breathe in partway. It can feel like I'm breathing through a squished straw," one woman living with asthma, a potentially serious respiratory condition, said when describing an attack.
Currently, 25 million Americans live with asthma — an amount the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America says is more than ever before.
Asthma, which has no cure, is a chronic inflammatory disease of the airways that lead to the lungs.
"In more simple terms, it is a disease that involves inflammation in the lungs and airways. In addition, the passages that lead to the lungs have muscles around them that can contract, narrowing the passage, making it difficult to breathe," Dr. Ujwala Kaza, a clinical assistant professor at NYU Langone who also works at ENT and Allergy Associates, told Fox News.
Read on for a look at the disease that affects an estimated one in 13 people in the U.S.
Who is prone to having asthma? Are you born with it or is it developed?
Generally speaking, asthma is more common in children, but "anyone can have asthma," said Kaza, noting "genetics can definitely play a role."
"For example, some children may develop signs of asthma at a very young age, even during infancy. When these children come down with a cold, their parents may notice that they begin to wheeze. While this may be a sign that they may one day develop asthma, it does not mean that they will develop asthma, as it is too early to make the diagnosis. So technically, no one is born with asthma, but you may be predisposed to developing it as a result of genetic and environmental factors. On the other hand, other people may show no signs of asthma until adulthood," she added.
In some cases, however, environmental influences play a role, Kaza explained.
"If you are a person who tends to get a sick a lot, that means there’s a background level of inflammation in your upper respiratory tract. If you then adopt a cat, which is a common trigger of allergic asthma, you may be likely to develop asthma. In reality, asthma is a very complex disease process that involves an interplay of many factors, including genetics and environmental triggers," she said.
How is it treated?
In short: It depends.
"Everyone is a bit different, so treatment has to be tailored to the individual," said Kaza. "In general, if there are any factors that are found to be triggers, the first step is to avoid those triggers. For example, if that adorable adopted cat who makes you sneeze sleeps on your pillow most nights, it may be a good idea to convince her to sleep in a different room. If you have a chronic postnasal drip from an allergy to pollen or from a deviated septum, it’s important to treat those issues as well."
"For the disease process directly, we use medications that relax the muscles around the passages that lead to lungs so patients can breathe more easily. In addition, we use medications that reduce the inflammation in the lungs to prevent future asthmatic episodes and help treat symptoms. For patients with moderate to severe disease, we have an exciting new class of medications, commonly referred to as 'biologics,' that have been game-changers in treating this disease."
Are children more prone to it?
"Yes, children tend to be more prone to asthma," she said. "In the U.S, there are 25 million patients with asthma and of these 7 million are children (and remember, a lot of the adults in that group of 25 million patients are people who had it as a child). Asthma is one of the most common chronic disease processes in children."
The rate that children in America are developing the condition is "steadily increasing," according to the Cleveland Clinic. But researchers aren't totally sure why that is. Not being exposed to enough childhood illnesses that strengthen the immune system may be one reason. Lower rates of breastfeeding could also be a factor, as could children being exposed to "more and more allergens" such as dust, air pollution and second- and sometimes third-hand smoke, as per the clinic.
Can you outgrow asthma?
Yes, says Kaza — but having asthma as a child could increase your risk for a flare-up later in life.
"In some people, asthma may lay dormant for years, then something in their environment may suddenly reactivate it as an adult," she said.
Why is asthma dangerous?
Though manageable for many people, asthma can be dangerous. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America estimates that 10 Americans die each day from the respiratory condition, noting that "many of these deaths are avoidable with proper treatment and care."
"There is a huge amount of variability in the severity of asthma," explained Kaza. "For most patients, it is a manageable chronic disease process. However, in some people, it can be dangerous and unfortunately, has led to death. Biologics, the newest class of medications to help patients with the moderate-severe disease, have been game-changers for many of these patients with more extensive disease."
What is an asthma attack and what should you do if someone is having one?
"An asthma attack is typically when a patient is experiencing symptoms of asthma – difficulty breathing, tightness in the chest, wheezing and coughing that may not be responsive to the usual rescue inhaler. First of all, make sure you sit the person down. Call for help. If they have not used their inhaler, find it for them and have them use it right away," Kaza said. "Early intervention can be the difference between life and death."