Last Updated 05/13/2020
Authors:Corinne Preston, NP-C, FCCP; Alan Roth, MS, RRT-NPS, FCCP
Understanding how asthma is treated and how to live well with it will improve your quality of life.
For more information about controlling your asthma symptoms, visit our asthma microsite.
- Asthma is a lung disease.
- Asthma affects more than 25 million men, women, and children in the United States.
- People who have asthma miss a combined 25 million days of school or work per year.
- There is no cure for asthma.
- Asthma is a common condition that you can manage. The many treatment options help most people to live a fully active and normal life.
Asthma is a chronic lung disease that causes inflammation and narrowing of the airways. This swelling, called inflammation, can cause episodes of wheezing, chest tightness, shortness of breath, and coughing.
How Asthma affects your body
The muscles around your airways tighten when asthma is active. This tightening narrows the airways and allows less air to flow into the lungs. You may feel short of breath and may also wheeze, cough, and feel tightness in your chest.
The inflammation can be caused by allergens or other irritants in the air. When your airways are inflamed, they may produce more mucus. This mucus can make you cough and wheeze and may make breathing difficult.
- Asthma is a serious but manageable condition.
- If it is not treated, asthma can lead to long-term airway blockage that cannot be fully healed.
- Even when controlled, there is risk of sudden worsening of symptoms. This flare-up is called an asthma attack.
- Asthma attacks may become severe enough to lead to hospitalization. In rare cases, they may lead to death.
Living Well Patient Guide
Asthma Myths Busted
The Living Well with Asthma Guide will introduce you to asthma – its common triggers; how to control and/or reduce symptoms; and the best medical options to keep it in check.
This patient education guide, infographic, and other collateral pieces are generously supported in part by a grant from Boehringer Ingelheim.
Symptoms of Asthma
Asthma is a disease that involves 2 body reactions: swelling and tightening of the airway. These 2 factors cause your airway passages to be sensitive to the environment. Asthma is a lifelong disease and has no cure. However, you can be symptom free for years by using medications and limiting your exposure to triggers.
The most common symptoms of asthma are:
- Chest discomfort;
- Shortness of breath;
- Cough, especially at night or early in the morning; and
- Not being able to perform activities of daily living.
What causes Asthma?
Many things can make asthma worse, but the cause of asthma is unknown. Asthma may have a genetic cause or be caused by environmental exposures.
What are risk factors for Asthma?
The following are risk factors for asthma:
- Race. Current data shows that 1 in 6 black Americans have asthma. The greatest increase in the cases of asthma is seen in this group. Asthma among Hispanics is 4 times greater compared with whites.
- Sex. Females with asthma outnumber males almost 2 to 1.
- Age. Asthma is more common in children than in adults. Boys are more likely to have asthma than girls, but women are more likely to have asthma than men.
- Family history. You are more likely to develop asthma if one of your parents has asthma.
- Allergies. People with allergies to mold spores and dust mites are more likely to develop asthma.
- Exposure to smoke. Children whose mothers smoked during pregnancy or who were exposed to secondhand or even thirdhand smoke are more likely to develop asthma.
- Pollution. Exposure to air pollution and toxic chemicals can also increase your risk of asthma.
- Weight. Obesity has recently been found to be a major risk factor for asthma. Asthma is considered more severe in people who are obese.
- Viral infections. Infections in your lungs can put you at risk for having asthma.
- Factors at work. Exposure to substances such as flour dust, household chemicals, and industrial chemicals can be a risk factor.
- Stress. Stress and its effects on your immune system can put you at risk for asthma.
Asthma in Children Infographic
Asthma can be diagnosed by both primary care providers and specialists.
Your health care provider will ask you about your symptoms and what makes them worse, called triggers. Your provider will ask about your medical history, work history, and family history. Then, he or she will perform a physical exam and may order tests to check your lung function. These exams may include a peak flow measurement or lung function tests. Other tests may be ordered depending on the triggers you have. For example, allergy testing may be ordered if you have allergy symptoms that make your breathing worse. Exercise breathing tests may be ordered if you report symptoms when you exercise.
To diagnose asthma, your health care provider will give you a lung function test called spirometry. During this test, you do different breathing exercises. You may also be given a medication during this test. If your lung function improves after the medication, your provider can confirm that you have asthma.
Contact your health care provider if you experience the following symptoms:
- Shortness of breath, coughing, or wheezing that affect activities of daily living
- Daytime asthma symptoms 2 or more days per week
- Shortness of breath that is not helped by your rescue inhaler
- Asthma symptoms that cause you to miss school or work
- Asthma symptoms that result in urgent care or emergency department visits
- Side effects of your medication
- Oral infections, such as thrush
Asthma Severity Assessment Tool
Severe Asthma Infographic
Severe Asthma Questions for your Doctor
Treatment for asthma can include:
- Avoiding known triggers;
- Allergy medications or inhaled medications; and
- Medical procedures to reduce airway tightening.
Inhaled medications treat inflammation in the airways or relax the smooth muscle that tightens the airways. If asthma symptoms are mild, you may only need a “rescue” inhaler when you have symptoms. If your asthma symptoms are more frequent or severe, your provider may give you a maintenance (“controller”) medication. You use this medication every day. Often, you get both medications.
You should work with your provider to manage your asthma. By avoiding triggers and taking the right medications, you will have more control over your symptoms.
Living with asthma may require daily medication. You may also need medication for asthma attacks. It is important to avoid triggers that make your symptoms worse. It is also important to keep in touch with your health care provider. Keep your flu and pneumonia vaccines up to date. Maintaining good indoor air quality may also help reduce your symptoms.
Air Quality Triggers
Your health care provider may ask you to monitor your breathing at home to make sure your asthma is under control. You may develop an asthma action plan, outlining actions and medications to be taken based on your symptoms.
Uncontrolled Asthma Infographic
Differences in Asthma Control
General health and fitness are important for people who have asthma. In fact, having asthma doesn’t mean that you can’t be active in sports or activities. Many professional athletes have asthma!
Go to follow-up appointments with your health care team to help manage your disease and its symptoms. Respiratory infections should be treated very quickly when you have asthma because infections are a common trigger for asthma attacks. Prevent illness by washing your hands and keeping immunizations up to date. Take your medication consistently to control your symptoms and manage your asthma.
Conditions that Impact
Leading Conditions that
Get the facts about Asthma: Myths BUSTED
Asthma can be cured.
There is no cure for asthma, but with regular treatment, it can be controlled, allowing patients to live full and productive lives.
You only have asthma when you have trouble breathing.
Asthma is a chronic condition, meaning it is there all the time. People with asthma have airway inflammation even when no symptoms are present.
Asthma attacks are always sudden and severe.
Most asthma attacks develop slowly with a gradual increase in symptoms like chest tightening, breathlessness, coughing, and wheezing. Recognizing your symptoms early can help you address the issues before an asthma attack becomes severe.
Asthma medication is only used when a person is having an asthma attack.
Medications are one of the most important tools for managing asthma symptoms and preventing them from getting worse. These include daily and long-term controller medicines, which are different from the medicines used to deal with an asthma attack. What’s important is to take your medicines as prescribed every day even if you don’t experience any symptoms.
Children can outgrow asthma.
Asthma is not a disease you outgrow. Symptoms can improve or resolve during adolescence and adulthood, but the disease never goes away.
Moving to a dry climate can cure asthma.
A change in environment may have a temporary impact on improving asthma symptoms, but it won’t cure the disease. Reducing the asthma triggers in your environment may be more helpful than moving to a different climate.
Allergies have nothing to do with asthma.
Roughly 70% of people with asthma also have allergies. Allergies increase lung inflammation and can trigger coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath. When allergies are effectively treated, asthma symptoms often improve.
People with asthma shouldn’t exercise.
Exercise is a critical element in healthy living, particularly for those with asthma. Regular exercise helps improve lung function. Additionally, weight loss reduces the risk of asthma and helps people with asthma breathe easier.
Asthma Myths Busted
There are many places to get information and support regarding asthma. The American Lung Association website is a great resource for information. The website may have information about local support groups in your area, and you can also ask your health care provider about support groups in your area. Your insurance provider may employ asthma educators to provide education and resources.
The CHEST Foundation has partnered with the Allergy and Asthma Network to bring you the best patient education on asthma that’s difficult to control. For more information about difficult-to-control asthma, visit chestnet.org/asthma.
Resources to help manage your Asthma
Visit the following links to learn more about how to manage your asthma:
Questions to ask your health care provider
- What is an asthma action plan?
- How do I know that my asthma is controlled?
- How is a peak flow meter used? What are my green, yellow, and red zone measurements?
- When I catch a cold, will it always worsen my asthma?
- What can I do to keep my asthma under control if I have allergies?
- What is the difference between a controller inhaler and a rescue inhaler?
- Do I have to take my controller inhaler every day if my asthma is under control?
- What is the difference between a spacer and a holding chamber? How does it work with my inhalers?
- What mouth care is required when using my controller inhalers?
- What is the difference between hydrofluoroalkane (HFA) inhalers, metered-dose inhalers, and dry powder inhalers?
- How many times can I use my rescue inhaler or nebulizer in a 24-hour period?
- Will the use of a controller inhaler that contains steroids affect my glaucoma?
- Will the use of a controller inhaler that contains steroids affect my blood pressure or heart rate?
- Can I exercise or play sports with asthma?
- Can I outgrow asthma?
- Can I pass asthma on to my children?
- How does smoking or secondhand smoke affect my asthma?
- Do I have to prime or shake my inhaler with each use?
- When should I use my rescue inhaler?
- How often should I have my pneumonia and flu vaccination?