What Is Asthma?

Contributor: Hannah Brooks. Lesson ID: 12711

Have you ever had trouble breathing, like after going under water or swallowing wrong? It's a scary feeling and dangerous situation! Asthma is a disease that restricts breathing. Recognize its causes!


Life Science

learning style
personality style
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8), High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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What does it feel like to be in a cave that is continuously shrinking?

  • Have you ever felt claustrophobic?

That feeling of being stuck and needing to run is very similar to trying, but struggling, to catch your breath.

In the previous Related Lesson in our Respiratory System series, found in the right-hand sidebar, you completed a lab activity where you experienced what a breathing obstruction felt like. Asthma is a very common respiratory disease that makes breathing more challenging because the airways have grown narrower due to swelling.

Before continuing, if you missed or need to review the first two lessons in the series, find them under Related Lessons in the right-hand sidebar.

asthma diagram

In an asthma patient, the restriction of tubes located in the lungs is temporary but can have serious consequences. These temporary events are often called "asthma attacks."

Asthma attacks are caused by airway obstruction, irritability, and inflammation. These three factors are driven by environmental factors like temperature, seasonal allergies, exposure to viruses and bacteria, exercise, emotions, and medications.

boy sneezing

Airway obstruction occurs when the muscles around the bronchial tubes tighten due to triggers like cold temperatures and allergens in the air. This tightening leads to shortness of breath and wheezing.

The same triggers — pollen, home cleaners, and tobacco smoke — can cause airway irritability. This causes the tubes to be sensitive and narrow quickly.

asthma diagram

Airway inflammation occurs when the tubes are swollen and red due to repeated exposure to unpleasant environmental factors. This inflammation can cause long-term damage to the lungs, making everyday breathing more challenging. Doctors focus on treating the inflammation to prevent this damage and improve quality of life.

Asthma can occur in adults and children and usually comes with similar symptoms. Many patients complain of a tight chest, shallow breathing, coughing spells occurring at night and during the day, fatigue, and a wheezing sound while breathing.

man coughing

Asthma is a very serious respiratory disease, because if a patient is unable to catch his or her breath, it can lead to decreased oxygen and death. Patients start treatment by visiting an asthma specialist, who will run medical tests to determine if asthma is occurring.

asthma test

Once diagnosed, most patients can be treated with inhalers of medication called "bronchodilators." These medications help the bronchi expand during an asthma attack, allowing for more air and oxygen to flow.

asthma treatment

Sometimes, individuals have severe asthma attacks that cannot be treated with an inhaler. In these situations, the patient needs immediate medical attention provided by a hospital!

You probably know someone with asthma because it is becoming more common as we have more exposure to daily allergens and our immune systems are unable to fight off as many. While it can usually be treated, it can also have severe consequences.

Asthma occurs when a patient is exposed to triggers and experiences a reduction in breathing ability. Generally, this restriction is caused by a tightening of the bronchial tubes in the lungs.

  • How are inflammation and irritability different?
  • What are some triggers that can cause an asthma attack?
  • Why is it important to be aware of the causes and treatment of asthma?

Middle school students, discuss what you have learned with a parent or teacher. High school students, record your answers in your notebook.

In the Got It? section, you will watch a short video to learn more about an asthma attack.

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