If you have asthma it’s kind of like your respiratory system won an undesirable lottery. Asthma symptoms typically include shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing (a whistling sound when you breathe), and chest tightness, so, it’s not exactly a party.
Having this health condition can spark a serious case of “why me?!” and make you wonder what causes asthma in the first place. The answer isn’t entirely clear-cut, but doctors have some ideas.
Let’s do a quick refresher on how asthma works so you can better understand what may cause it.
There are various types of asthma, but they all have the same effect on your respiratory system. Asthma affects your airways, which go between your nose and mouth and your lungs. Your airways have the incredibly important job of carrying air in and out of your body, but triggers can inflame them to the point of malfunctioning, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) says.
This inflammation can make your airways swell up, causing the muscles around them to tighten. That often makes it hard to get air in and out. At the same time, your airways might also make more mucus than normal, adding to the factors that make it hard for you to breathe. That’s how you wind up with asthma symptoms.
Your genetics: Asthma usually runs in families, the ALA points out. If your mom or dad (or both) has it, the odds that you’ll have it climb as well.
A personal or family history of allergies: This can include seasonal allergies as well as allergic skin conditions like atopic dermatitis (eczema), Ronald Purcell, M.D., an allergist and immunologist at the Cleveland Clinic, tells SELF. This is because of something known as the atopic march, he says, which is a group of allergic conditions that may progress during different stages of a susceptible person’s life.
Respiratory infections as a child: Well, obviously every kid gets a respiratory infection at some point, lovable little germ machines that they are, and not everyone will wind up with asthma because of it. But when you were a baby and young kid, your lungs were still developing, so respiratory infections could have caused inflammation and damaged the lining of your lung tissue. This kind of damage can lead to an increased risk of developing asthma in the future, the ALA says.
Your environment: This is kind of a mix of the above factors, but it’s worth noting that if you were exposed to allergens, irritants, or viral infections as a baby or young child when your immune system wasn’t fully developed, you’re at an increased risk of developing asthma, the ALA says. There isn’t one set reason why this happens, but it could simply be because all of these tend to be inflammatory and potentially harmful to your lung tissue, Dr. Purcell says.