California Department of Public Health logo: three likenesses of people colored blue, green, and orange  
Woman using inhaler

Join our list

Get updates on our project activities and new features of our website. Sign up for our newsletter here.

Contact Us

California Environmental Health Tracking Program

850 Marina Bay Pkwy, P-3
Richmond, CA 94804

(510) 620-3038
E-Mail Us
Last Edited: 4/30/2015

What is Asthma

Asthma is a disease that affects the lungs and makes it difficult to breath. It is a serious health concern affecting many adults and children in California. Research has shown that asthma is exacerbated by elements in the environment (e.g., air pollution).  To learn more, select from the following topics or scroll down.

What is asthma?

Asthma is a disease that affects the lungs.  It is the most common chronic disease among children in the U.S and impacts over 5 million Californians.  Asthma is characterized by ongoing inflammation of the lining of the lung passages.  Frequently, this inflammation does not cause symptoms. Other times, the lung passages undergo spasms resulting in symptoms such as coughing, chest tightness, and wheezing.  The severity of those symptoms can range from mild to life-threatening.


Back to top


What causes asthma?

The complete causes of asthma are still unknown, but both genetic and environmental factors influence asthma development. For example, asthma can be caused by exposures in the workplace.

Once a person has asthma, there are a number of things that trigger symptoms such as colds, allergens, and air pollution. Though a person can get asthma at any age, it is more likely to be diagnosed in childhood than in adulthood.

Once a person has asthma, it doesn’t go away, although it may get better at times and they may stop experiencing symptoms. There is no cure for asthma. With proper management, most people can control their condition so that symptoms occur infrequently and have a minimal impact on their daily life.


Back to top


What is an asthma attack?

Asthma symptoms may be mild and go unnoticed for long periods of time. When asthma symptoms become worse, it is called an “asthma attack”. During asthma attacks, symptoms may interfere with school, work, or play. For some, asthma attacks may be serious enough to warrant visits to the emergency department or hospitalization. In the worst situation, an asthma attack can cause death.

Common asthma symptoms include:

  • Wheezing
  • Chest tightness
  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath

Back to top


What causes an asthma attack?

There is a difference between what causes someone to have asthma and what triggers asthma attacks and symptoms. We know much more about elements that trigger asthma attacks. The most common asthma triggers include viruses, allergens, irritants, and exercise.

Back to top


What are asthma triggers?

Asthma triggers bring on asthma attacks and symptoms. The most common asthma triggers include viruses, allergens, irritants, and exercise.

Allergens, or substances that can cause an allergic reaction, include:

  • Mold
  • Dust mites
  • Cockroaches
  • Pet dander
  • Pollen from trees, bushes, weeds, grasses, and other plants

Irritants, or particles in the air that irritate the nose and breathing passages, include:

  • Air pollution
  • Chemicals used in the household and workplace
  • Cold air or changes in weather
  • Strong odors
  • Tobacco smoke (both from smoking and secondhand smoke)
  • Medications
  • Respiratory infections

Each person with asthma may be susceptible to different asthma triggers. To prevent asthma attacks, it is important to minimize exposure to these asthma triggers.


Back to top


How can asthma be diagnosed?

There is no single way to diagnose asthma. Asthma can be diagnosed by physicians through interviews with patients, physical examinations, trials of medications, and lung function testing. Some individuals with asthma may not be diagnosed, especially if they are not receiving adequate medical care.


Back to top