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Is asthma genetic? Understanding the role of genetics in asthma development

August 2, 2023
5 minutes
Your Health
Chronic Conditions

If you or someone in your family is living with asthma, you may wonder what caused the disease, and whether it can be passed on genetically. Here, we'll explore the symptoms of asthma, the genes that are associated with an increased risk of asthma development, and the treatments that can help control asthma symptoms.

What is asthma?

Asthma is a respiratory disorder in which airways become inflamed and cause recurring breathing difficulties. Sometimes, asthma episodes are referred to as asthma attacks.

During an asthma attack, the muscles around the airway tighten, making it difficult for the person experiencing the attack to breathe. Over time, this can have a compounding effect, as the tightening and strengthening of the muscles around the airways can cause the muscles to become larger, resulting in additional breathing difficulty due to airway compression.

Many people who have asthma experience mild symptoms regularly, and more severe symptoms less frequently. Asthma can flare up with seasonal changes, exercise, and illness, including the flu. Over time, people who have asthma often learn to understand their triggers, allowing them to utilize self-care and medication to prevent an attack.

Asthma symptoms can include:

  • A feeling of tightness or itchiness in the chest
  • Extreme sensitivity to environmental irritants and/or allergens
  • Shortness of breath, even while performing everyday activities
  • Wheezing (a whistling or squeaking sound in the chest that occurs while inhaling or exhaling)
  • Excessive coughing (often flares up at night)

Is asthma genetic?

Asthma is a complex condition. Research shows that asthma is caused by both environmental and genetic factors. People who have a close relative who has asthma are more likely to develop asthma, but there's no guarantee. Research shows that people who are genetically likely to develop asthma develop the condition in about 75% of cases.

Genes and asthma: what you need to know

3D rendering of DNA.

There is not a single gene that causes asthma, but there are genes that make it more likely that a person will develop the condition.

Genes associated with the development of asthma include ADAM 33, PHF11, DPP10, GRPA, and SPINK5. Since asthma has both environmental and genetic factors, it can be helpful to know if a person is likely to develop the condition.

While asthma development cannot be totally prevented, parents who have asthma can take steps to make it less likely that their child will experience severe symptoms. Reducing exposure to allergens, encouraging regular exercise, and working closely with a pediatrician to reduce the risk of severe symptoms can all help a child who is likely to develop asthma breathe easily.

Allergies can also make it more likely that a person will develop asthma. Allergies to dust mites, cats, dogs, cockroaches, fungi, and mold may be a predictor of an asthma diagnosis.

Genetic risk scores: predicting asthma susceptibility

Some asthma develops solely due to environmental factors, so it can be tough to correctly determine a person's likelihood of being diagnosed with the condition. According to the Centers for Disease Control, a person who has at least one parent with asthma is up to six times more likely to develop the condition.

Male children are more likely to develop asthma than female children, as 8.3% of males are diagnosed with childhood asthma, compared to just 6.7% of females. Researchers aren't sure what role sex plays in this difference. And, unfortunately, lack of research on childhood asthma rates for intersex individuals means we don’t have a full picture. 

As time goes on, however, there's a shift--among adults who were diagnosed with asthma as children. 9.8% of females still have the condition as adults, and 5.5% of males still have the condition as adults. As with children, there is unfortunately a gap in research when it comes to the incidence of asthma in intersex adults.

There are also racial differences when it comes to the development of asthma. According to Lung.org, "Blacks and American Indian/Alaska Natives have the highest current asthma rates compared to other races and ethnicities. In 2018, Black people (10.9%) were 42 percent more likely than white people (7.7%) to have asthma. Hispanics (6.4%) and Asians (4.0%) had lower current asthma prevalence rates than other ethnic groups."

Household income is also correlated with the likelihood of an asthma diagnosis. Of people who live in a home with an income level that falls below the poverty threshold, 11% are typically diagnosed with asthma, according to Lung.org.

Exposure to cigarette smoke and weight can also contribute to the development of asthma. People who weigh more may be more likely to develop asthma and tend to have more days during which they experience severe asthma symptoms. Weight can also play a role in how well someone is able to manage their asthma symptoms with medication. 

Asthma treatment

While it can be scary to get an asthma diagnosis, it's the first step toward learning more about how you can best support your (or your child's) health.

Left untreated, asthma can turn deadly. It's important that you work closely with your doctor to ensure that you're controlling the condition.

For many people, a combination of asthma medication and lifestyle can help ease symptoms. Your doctor may recommend that you take a daily asthma medication to keep your symptoms in check, while also keeping a quick-relief medication on hand for flare-ups.

Asthma medications are typically in the form of an inhaler or a pill. Some people may also keep a nebulizer at home, which is a machine that vaporizes asthma medication, allowing it to quickly get into the body in large doses. This is the same machine that's often used in the emergency room to help quell an asthma attack.

Your doctor may also recommend lifestyle changes to ease the symptoms of your asthma. These may include exercising regularly, losing weight, quitting smoking, avoiding certain allergens, and making dietary changes.

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If you have asthma, you know how your physical well-being can help to control your symptoms, and keeping your finger on the pulse of your overall health can empower you to breathe easily--literally.

Knowledge is power, and tracking your health can be the first step toward living your best life. Download the Evidation app today to help you get the insights you need to live well.

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