What is asthma?

Alternative names: Bronchial asthma

Asthma is an inflammatory condition of the bronchi (the airways) in the chest. It’s a long-term (chronic) condition that can worsen to produce acute asthma attacks with increasing shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing (when you hear a whistling sound as you breathe), and tightness of the chest.

With asthma, the airways become inflamed in response to an allergy or trigger such as house dust mites, exercise, sulphites in food, viruses, cold weather, smoke and pollen. When exposed to the trigger, the airways constrict (become narrow), reducing the airflow to the lungs.

Whether you’ve had asthma for a short or long period of time, there’s usually room for improvement. Don’t judge whether you need help from your doctor by how long you’ve had asthma; judge on the presence of symptoms.

Asthma can be controlled, so you should really experience no or minimal symptoms. If you do experience symptoms, it’s time to check in with your medical team.

Reviewed by independent healthcare consultant Prof Praneet Valodia and pulmonologist Prof Elvis Irusen, Head of the Division of Pulmonology at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Stellenbosch University. October 2018.

Read more:

- Who gets asthma?

- Asthma symptoms