Updated 25 January 2019

What is asthma?

Asthma is a respiratory condition that causes the airways in the body to constrict, limiting the amount of air coming in and out of the lungs.

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


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Professor Keertan Dheda has received of several prestigious awards including the 2014 Oppenheimer Award, and has published over 160 peer-reviewed papers and holds 3 patents related to new TB diagnostic or infection control technologies. He serves on the editorial board of the journals PLoS One, the International Journal of Tuberculosis and Lung Disease, American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Medicine, Lancet Respiratory Diseases and Nature Scientific Reports, amongst others.Read his full biography at the University of Cape Town Lung Institute

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