To understand asthma, a chronic disease that causes your airways to become inflamed, it helps to first know how your airways work.
How Do Normal Airways Work?
When we breathe in, air moves through our airways – from our nose or mouth, down a large hollow tube in the front of the neck called a windpipe or trachea – and into our lungs.
The trachea divides into two tubes called bronchial [bron-KEE-uhl] tubes in the lungs. They look like upside-down trees. As the bronchial tubes pass through the lungs, they divide into smaller air passages called bronchioles [bron-KEE-ohlz]. At the end of each bronchiole are tiny air sacs that fill up with air, like tiny balloons, each time we breathe in. These are called alveoli [al-VEE-uh-lahy].
Air comes into our lungs each time we breathe in. This air has oxygen in it. Oxygen has a special job. It helps feed, or give energy to, all parts of our body so we can walk, talk, eat and exercise.
How Do Your Airways Work When You Have Asthma?
When you have asthma, your airways aren't able to function as well as they should.
- Shortness of breath
- Chest tightness
Asthma causes inflammation, or swelling, in the lungs. It can also cause squeezing, called bronchoconstriction [bron-KOH-con-STRICK-shun], and extra sensitive or twitchy airways.
When something bothers your airways, you have trouble breathing. This is called an asthma attack or episode. It gets harder to breathe because the tiny muscles around your airways squeeze tightly and they have swelling inside.
Your airways will make more mucus inside your airways, which makes it even harder to breathe. These changes in your airways can cause coughing and wheezing.
There is no cure for asthma. But you can take steps to manage it. If you have asthma, it's important to see an asthma specialist, like an allergist or pulmonologist, to come up with the right asthma treatment plan. Medicines and avoiding asthma triggers can help reduce swelling and relax tight muscles in your airways.