During asthmatic episodes, or attacks, the body's airways (bronchi and bronchioles, which deliver air to the lungs) overreact to pollen, cat dander, cigarette smoke, cold air, or other stimuli. The airway wall muscles begin to spasm, narrowing the opening and allowing less air to reach the lungs. An inflammatory response results in a rapid thickening of mucus, which further narrows the airway. An asthma attack may begin with wheezing, coughing, or shortness of breath; suffocation can occur in rare cases.
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