The experience of asthma in adults varies widely, from “It’s not that big of a deal” to “I can’t breathe at all.” In all, more than 25 million Americans (adults and children) struggle with the effects of asthma on their breathing—and their daily lives.

Asthma is a long-term disease that makes the airways in your lungs sensitive and irritated. When you have an asthma attack, these airways narrow, swell and produce thick and sticky mucus. The narrowing—called bronchospasm—is caused by tightening of the muscles that control your airways. The combination of bronchospasm, swelling and mucus prevents air from moving freely in and out of your lungs.

Symptoms of an asthma attack include:

Wheezing, a whistling or squeaking sound during breathing (the most common symptom of asthma)

Shortness of breath

Coughing, especially at night and in the morning

Tightness in the chest

Difficulty sleeping because of asthma symptoms

Asthma symptoms are usually tied to the inhalation of specific substances that irritate the airways, known as triggers. Triggers may also include activities like exercise, an upper airway infection and certain medications. Asthma affects people of all ages. Asthma usually begins in childhood, but it also may start when you're an adult. Among adults, more women than men have it. The cause of asthma is mostly unknown, but it appears to run in families. You may inherit genes that make you susceptible to it. Triggers like allergies, infections or exposures to substances like smoke, fumes and pollution may trigger those genes to become active.

There is no cure for asthma. If you have it, you have it all the time—even when you feel fine. Triggers and treatments differ from person to person. But, with the right diagnosis and treatment, you can learn how to manage your asthma and live a full and normal life.

To help reduce your risk of asthma attacks, be sure you know:

  • The things in your life that can trigger an attack
  • Ways to avoid triggers
  • Steps to take to control and relieve asthma symptoms

Asthma Triggers

Everyone with asthma has his or her own triggers. Most people with asthma have allergies. For them, allergens— the substances that cause allergy symptoms—are common triggers. They have what's called allergic asthma. For others, common triggers might be exercise or occupational exposures like fumes, dust or gasses.

Allergy testing can help pinpoint your personal allergic asthma triggers. Common ones include:

  • Dust mites
  • Cockroaches and their droppings
  • Pet dander
  • Mold spores
  • Pollens from grasses, trees and flowers

Common non-allergic asthma triggers include:

  • Physical exercise
  • Some medications, including aspirin, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and beta-blockers
  • Upper respiratory infections like the cold or flu
  • Acid reflux
  • Weather extremes like cold, dry air or high humidity
  • Some foods, food additives and preservatives called sulfites
  • Strong emotions or stress
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Air pollution
  • Occupational exposures