Asthma has plagued mankind for centuries. The Egyptians knew about it as early as 5,000 B.C. The early Greeks named it asthma, meaning "panting" or "breathing hard." Hippocrates discovered that cold and dampness can cause asthma.

Asthma, a lung disease, causes trouble with breathing and can be controlled but not cured. It affects about 7 million people in the United States. Anybody can get it at any age. Although not contagious, it does tend to run in families. If you have close relatives with asthma, you are more likely to get it.When asthma occurs, the problem affects the airways of your lungs. The airways narrow because the muscles around them tighten and their inner linings swell. Extra mucus clogs the smaller airways. Breathing gets harder as the victim tries to force air through the narrower airways. The air may make a wheezing or whistling sound, and the person may cough or spit up mucus.

Most often, asthma episodes are mild and airways open in a short time, usually within a few hours, sometimes within a few minutes. However, some asthma episodes are very serious and require immediate treatment.

Triggers of asthma

Things that trigger asthma include:

- Allergies - foods, (e.g., nuts, chocolate, eggs, fish, milk, peanut butter, orange juice); pollens - grasses, hay, ragweed, mold spores, flowers; animals - rabbits, cats, dogs, gerbils, birds; feather pillows.

- Household products - vapors from paint and cleaning solvents; sprays from cleaners, room deodorizers, furniture polish, hair sprays and scented cosmetics.

- Weather - cold air, excessive humidity and changes in seasons.

- Air pollution.

- Exercise - wheezing may begin after overexertion.

- Infections - cold, bronchitis, tonsillitis and sore throat.

- Emotions - fear, anger, laughing too hard and crying.

- Smoke - from cigarettes, cigars and pipes.

Controlling asthma

An episode of asthma seldom happens suddenly, even though it sometimes seems to. Early warning signals allow a person time to take action. These signals include a feeling of tightness in the chest, light wheezing, having to make an extra effort to breathe, coughing when you don't have a cold, and restlessness while trying to sleep.

When an episode seems apparent, the person should take his or her physician-prescribed medicine to prevent an episode from getting worse. Don't try to "tough it out."

While the medicine begins working to open the airways, the victim should relax, drink plenty of fluids to thin the mucus in the lungs and take control of his or her breathing.