What is Asthma?

Learn what asthma is and what causes it.

Rob Lamberts, MD
5-minute read
Episode #32

Breathing is important. You have to trust me on that; I’m a doctor. Everyone should practice breathing every day (hopefully you picked the habit up after reading my episode on sleep apnea). There are some conditions, however, that make breathing very difficult. This is serious because without breathing people are…dead. That’s not good. Trust me on that one as well.

What is Asthma?

The next two articles will cover a common condition that makes breathing difficult in adults and children: asthma. Asthma is very common, affecting 7% of Americans, and nearly 300 million people worldwide. Even if you don’t have asthma, this is an important disease to understand for several reasons:

  1. It’s common enough that you will frequently encounter people with asthma

  2. The symptoms are subtle, so sometimes the first sign of the disease is a major attack

  3. People can die from major attacks.

To understand asthma, however, I have to first explain breathing. That may sound obvious, but breathing is more complicated than you think. Next week, I'll cover some ways to treat asthma and prevent asthma attacks.

Why People Breathe

There are two main parts of breathing: breathing in and breathing out. The purpose of breathing in is to suck air into the lungs, whereas breathing out is all about pushing air out of the lungs. That sounds obvious, but what isn’t obvious is what happens in the lungs when you do this.

What Happens in Your Lungs When You Breathe?

The lungs are where air meets your bloodstream.Two things happen when the air meets the blood:

  • The red blood cells suck up oxygen from the air

  • The carbon dioxide in the blood moves into the air in the lung.

Both of these are very important. Your cells need oxygen to burn energy and do the cell things they do, be they muscle cells contracting, nerve cells conducting nerve signals, or spleen cells doing whatever spleen cells do. The energy they usually burn is a sugar called glucose (see the diabetes articles for more about glucose).


Please note that all content here is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute any medical advice, and does not replace any medical judgment or reasoning by your own personal health provider. Please always seek a licensed physician in your area regarding all health related questions and issues.