Where does my asthma come from?

Asthma | 2/19/2019
Where does my asthma come from?
From the ancient Egyptians to the father of medicine Hippocrates, people have been pondering the same question about the origins of asthma for millennia. We’ve worked out a lot about managing the symptoms, but do we really know where asthma comes from – and why so many of us are getting it?

The ancient Greeks were the ones to coin the word “asthma,” referring to laborious breathing or panting, but it’s thought that people have been suffering from similar respiratory conditions as far back as 2600BC. This means that shortness of breath and inflamed airways are by no means a new phenomenon.

So if people have been noticing that certain things make them “wheezy” for literally thousands of years, do we actually know why some people get asthma and some don’t?

A treatable mystery

According to the European Respiratory Society, the number of people diagnosed with asthma in Western Europe doubled in the 20th century, which might mean there’s a link between developing asthma and living in cities.

However, more and more people in developing countries are also finding out that they have asthma, and all in all, there doesn’t seem to be a strong enough pattern to give us all the answers to the mysteries of asthma’s distribution. What we do know is that asthma remains one of the most common diseases in the world – and it’s on the rise.

On the plus side, as more people are getting an asthma diagnosis, more people are also finding out that they can seek advice on their symptoms and get the right medication.

Is it inherited?

You might have noticed that asthma tends to run in families. However, it’s not a foregone conclusion that if your parents have it you will get it too. One thing we suspect about asthma is that contributing factors are likely to be both genetic and environmental.

Adult asthma most commonly originates in childhood and has something to do with you developing a sensitivity to common inhaled allergens like dust mites, pollens and pets. Asthma is also common amongst children, and some find their symptoms disappear in adulthood. However, while you can control the symptoms, the sensitivity remains for life.

Did something trigger my asthma?

While different illnesses, viruses or infections can be a factor in getting adult onset asthma, lifestyle choices like smoking don’t necessarily cause it. Nevertheless, you may find that inhaling any foreign substance can exacerbate symptoms if you have an underlying condition.

In a nutshell, the complex mix between your genes and your environment is thought to be what might spark your susceptibility – yet even these factors are highly variable and difficult to predict.

What else do we know?

While we may not have all the answers about where your asthma came from, modern medicine provides a vast array of options when it comes to managing your symptoms, from bronchodilators to alleviate sudden attacks, to inhaled steroids that manage inflammation over the long term. This means it’s totally possible to live a normal and healthy life with your asthma.

So, is it a miracle that we can manage this complex condition effectively, despite not entirely understanding why we have it? Not really. We may only recently have developed the ability to peer into our own DNA, but we’ve spent already 5,000 years working out how to treat our asthma symptoms!



By Sarah Hudson

Photo by iStock




A brief history of asthma. Medical News Today. Healthline Media UK Ltd. Published online.

European Lung White Book (2020). The European Respiratory Society.

Kudo, M., Ishigatsubo, Y., and Aoki, I., (2013) Pathology of asthma, Front Microbiol. 2013; 4: 263. Sep 10, 2013.

Nunes, C, Pereira, A. M and Morais-Almeida, M., (2017) Asthma costs and social impact, Asthma Research and Practice 3:1, Jan 6, 2017.

Thomsen, Simon F., (2015) Genetics of asthma: an introduction for the clinician. Eur Clin Respir J. Jan 2015; 2.

William W. Busse, M.D.,1 Robert F. Lemanske, Jr., M.D.,1,2 and James E. Gern, M.D., (2010) The Role of Viral Respiratory Infections in Asthma and Asthma Exacerbations, Lancet 2010 Sep 4; 376(9743): 826–834.


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