Diseases & Conditions



Diseases & Conditions

What is asthma?

Asthma is a chronic (long-term) lung disease that inflames and narrows the airways. Asthma causes recurring periods of wheezing (a whistling sound while breathing), chest tightness, shortness of breath, and coughing. The coughing often occurs at night or early in the morning. Asthma cannot be cured, but its symptoms can be controlled.1

The most recent revised global estimate of asthma suggests that as many as 334 million people have asthma in 2014, and that the burden of disability is high.2

Asthma is one of the most common chronic diseases in Saudi Arabia, affecting more than 6 million Saudis. About 8-14% of Saudi children have asthma, and physician-diagnosed asthma in adolescent age (16 − 18 years) is 19.6%.3

What are the causes of asthma?

The exact cause of asthma is unknown, but it is probably due to a combination of environmental and genetic factors.4

Substances that cause allergies are called allergens which can trigger asthma. If a person inhales something he is allergic to, he may experience asthma symptoms. It is best to avoid or limit contact with known allergens to decrease or prevent asthma episodes.

  • Common allergens that cause allergic asthma include:
  • Outdoor allergens, such as pollen from weeds, trees, and grass
  • Indoor allergens such as animal dander, mold, cockroaches and dust mites
  • Respiratory infections, such as the common cold, flu and other illnesses
  • Physical activity (exercise-induced asthma although people with asthma can benefit from exercise)
  • Weather conditions such as cold air or extremely dry weather
  • Air pollutants and irritants, such as smoke, chemical fumes and strong odors
  • Certain medications and food additives
  • Stress
  • Some types of foods and beverages containing sulfites, including shrimp, dried fruit, processed potatoes, beer and wine

Who is at risk of getting asthma?

Asthma affects people of all ages, but it most often starts during childhood. Young children who often wheeze and have respiratory infections—as well as certain other risk factors—are at highest risk of developing asthma that continues beyond 6 years of age. The other risk factors include having allergies, eczema (an allergic skin condition), or parents who have asthma. Among children, more boys have asthma than girls. But among adults, more women have the disease than men. Most, but not all, people who have asthma have allergies.1


What are the signs and symptoms of asthma?

Asthma symptoms vary from person to person. Asthma symptoms, also called asthma flare-ups or asthma attacks, are often caused by allergies and exposure to allergens such as pet dander, dust mites, pollen or mold. Non-allergic triggers include smoke, pollution or cold air or changes in weather. Asthma signs and symptoms include:5

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness or pain
  • Trouble sleeping caused by shortness of breath, coughing or wheezing
  • A whistling or wheezing sound when exhaling (wheezing is a common sign of asthma in children)
  • Coughing or wheezing attacks that are worsened by a respiratory virus, such as a cold or the flu


For some people, asthma signs and symptoms flare up in certain situations:5

  • Exercise-induced asthma, which may be worse when the air is cold and dry
  • Occupational asthma, triggered by workplace irritants such as chemical fumes, gases or dust
  • Allergy-induced asthma, triggered by particular allergens, such as pet dander, cockroaches or pollen


How is asthma diagnosed?

The diagnosis of asthma by a doctor is based upon:6

  • Medical and family history: An allergist diagnoses asthma by taking a thorough medical history.


  • Physical examination


  • Lung function tests (breathing test to measure lung functions):
    • Spirometry: It is a test that diagnoses asthma severity and measures how well treatment is working.
    • Peak flow. It is a test that measures how hard a person can breathe out. Lower than usual peak flow readings are a sign of damaged lungs and worsening of the asthma.


Many people with asthma also have allergies, so the doctor may perform allergy testing. Treating the underlying allergic triggers for asthma will help the patient avoid asthma symptoms.


How is asthma treated and controlled?

There is no cure for asthma, but symptoms can be controlled with effective asthma treatment and management. Prevention and long-term control are key in stopping asthma attacks before they start. Patients can work with the doctors to develop an asthma action plan that gives guidance on taking medicines properly, avoiding asthma triggers (except physical activity), tracking level of asthma control, responding to worsening symptoms, and seeking emergency care when needed.

Asthma is treated with two types of medicines:7

  • Long-term control: Long-term control medicines help reduce airway inflammation and prevent asthma symptoms. These medications include:
    • Inhaled corticosteroids
    • Leukotriene modifiers
    • Long-acting beta agonists
    • Combination inhalers
    • Theophylline
  • Quick-relief medicines. Quick-relief, or "rescue," medicines relieve asthma symptoms that may flare up. These quick-relief medicines include:
    • Short-acting beta agonists
    • Ipratropium
    • Oral and intravenous corticosteroids

People with asthma are at risk of developing complications from respiratory infections such as influenza and pneumonia. That is why it is important for asthma sufferers, especially adults, to get vaccinated annually.6



  1. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/asthma
  2. The Global Asthma Report 2014 (The Global Asthma Report 2014). http://www.globalasthmareport.org/burden/burden.php
  3. Alotaibi, G. A. "Asthma control and self-management: The role of asthma education." Saudi Journal for Health Sciences 4.1 (2015): 16.
  4. What Is Asthma?" American Thoracic Society - Patient Information Series. 2013. Web. 1 Dec. 2015. <https://www.thoracic.org/patients/patient-resources/resources/asthma.pdf>.
  5. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/asthma/basics/symptoms/con-20026992
  6. http://www.aaaai.org/conditions-and-treatments/asthma.aspx
  7. Asthma (Treatments and drugs). http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/asthma/basics/treatment/con-20026992