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Asthma in Women

What's the Problem?

Asthma is a disease that affects people’s lungs. Asthma causes repeated episodes of wheezing, breathlessness, chest tightness, and nighttime or early morning coughing (1). Asthma is a chronic lung disease. However, asthma attacks only happen when something bothers one’s lungs. When it comes to women and asthma, the ability to breathe can be affected by pregnancy, the menstrual cycle, and menopause. Women who also have allergies and other asthma triggers may struggle to get a breath of fresh air (2).

Who's at Risk?

Asthma affects an estimated 18.7 million adults in the United States (3). Compared to male asthma patients, women with chronic asthma also face extra challenges due to menstrual cycle, pregnancy, and menopause. Changing estrogen levels can lead to an inflammatory response, which can bring on asthma symptoms (4). In addition, asthma attacks can be very dangerous for pregnant women and their babies, since neither of them are getting enough oxygen when an attack happens.

Can It Be Prevented?

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In most cases, the causes of asthma are unknown and there is no absolute cure for it (5). However, asthma can be controlled if the patient knows the warning signs of an attack, stays away from things that trigger an attack, and follows the advice of their doctor or other health professionals. Many doctors suggest using daily maintenance medication rather than relying only on rescue inhalers, since symptom prevention is preferable to treating symptoms once they have started (6).

The Bottom Line

  • Asthma is a disease that affects your lungs; it is one of the most common long-term diseases of children (adults can have it, too), and causes repeated episodes of wheezing, breathlessness, chest tightness, and nighttime or early morning coughing.
  • The exact cause of asthma is unknown, and asthma cannot be cured. However, if you or your child has asthma, it can be controlled by receiving ongoing medical care and education about how to manage asthma and asthma attacks, and by avoiding asthma triggers at school, work, home, outdoors, and elsewhere.
  • Triggers for asthma can include mold, tobacco smoke, outdoor air pollution, dust mites, pet dander, cockroach droppings, wood smoke and infections linked to influenza, colds, and other viruses (7). Avoiding these triggers, along with using inhaled corticosteroids and other medicines, are the keys to preventing an asthma attack.
  • Not only are women challenged with balancing known asthma triggers like pollen and mold, they also need to deal with female hormones in their bodies that are constantly changing in ways that might impact how well they can breathe.
  • For women living with chronic asthma, it is important for them to avoid known asthma triggers, especially before each menstrual period is about to begin, and during pregnancy and menopause.

Case Example

Hannah is 28-years-old and has been living with asthma for as long as she can remember. Despite several very scary emergency room visits when she was younger, she has managed to keep her symptoms under control in recent years with the help of maintenance medications. However, when Hannah finds out she is expecting her first child, she starts to have asthma attacks more often. Hannah immediately decides to talk to her doctor about her condition, and learns that asthma can become worse during a woman’s pregnancy since hormone levels are constantly changing. Her doctor tells her that if her asthma is not controlled, her baby may not get enough oxygen, and is at a higher risk for health problems such as poor growth and premature birth. Hannah’s doctor then refers her to see an allergist to fully determine her allergens and asthma triggers. She is told to avoid these allergens and triggers in her daily life, and monitor her symptoms and conditions closely during her entire pregnancy.

  • Page last reviewed: November 6, 2012
  • Page last updated: November 6, 2012
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