What is asthma?

Did you know about 25 million Americans live with asthma?With numbers like that, chances are you know at least one person with this long-term disease of the lungs. Asthma is a chronic condition that inflames and narrows airways, which makes it hard to breathe. Severe asthma can even make talking or being active a daily challenge. Luckily, there are ways to help manage asthma symptoms and avoid disruptive trips to the ER.

What are some types of asthma?

Breaking down the different types of asthma can help doctors pinpoint triggers and recommend effective treatment. Types of asthma include:2

What causes asthma?

While the exact underlying cause of asthma is unknown, being aware of what may trigger symptoms can help individuals to avoid asthma attacks. Different types of asthma can have their own set of triggers. Sometimes, people prone to asthma avoid their trigger until later in life. For example, a new roommate with a furry friend, viral infection or exposure to new chemicals can bring on an asthma attack.7

Asthma triggers can include:8

  • Seasonal or pet allergies

  • Dust mites

  • Food and food additives

  • Exercise

  • Smoking

  • Medication

  • Mold spores

  • Weather

  • Colds and sinus infections

  • Gastroesophageal reflux

  • Smoke or smog

  • Emotional upset

What are asthma symptoms?

Asthma symptoms can range from being mild to severe.  Asthma symptoms in adults can include:9

  • Shortness of breath
  • Coughing (especially at night, during exercise or when laughing)
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest tightness
  • Wheezing
  • Stress

What's an asthma attack?

For some people an asthma attack can begin with a cough. For others, it can feel like someone is sitting on your chest, making it hard to take a full, deep breath. Asthma attack symptoms also may include chest tightness, wheezing, and rapid breathing.9 When asthma is well controlled, you may only have symptoms during an exacerbation, (also known as an asthma attack or flare). During an asthma attack, which is often brought on by exposure to one of your triggers, asthma symptoms worsen. 

What to do for an asthma attack

If someone around you is having an asthma attack, follow their asthma action plan and give asthma first aid. This may mean helping them take their quick relief asthma medicine and if possible, getting them away from what may have triggered the attack.  If someone is having a severe attack, in addition to taking quick-relief medication, get emergency help right away.  Emergency help may also be needed if symptoms are worsening or not responding to the asthma medications.

What are asthma treatments?

A good course of action in managing asthma is to avoid triggers, when possible, along with taking medications as prescribed and knowing your limitations. Having an asthma action plan can help you know what to do to manage your asthma and lead a more active life, while keeping your symptoms in check. Asthma treatments include:10

  • Medication: There are lots of different medications used to treat asthma. Most people may need 2 kinds — quick-relief and long-term control. Quick-relief medications help ease asthma symptoms and help treat an asthma attack.  Long-term controller medications help prevent asthma attacks and help with long term treatment.
  • Immunotherapy: This is a preventive and anti-inflammatory treatment. It exposes your body to allergens (usually through allergy shots) to help your body recognize allergens and become less sensitive to them. This treatment can reduce symptoms in patients with allergic asthma.

What should I do if I'm concerned I may have asthma?

You may be tempted to brush off your shortness of breath as a result of running up the stairs or shrug off your “seasonal” (but persistent) cough. But if you have symptoms, that could your body’s way of telling you it’s time to see a doctor.

Lots of people live with asthma — and some may not even know it if their symptoms aren’t that bad. On the other hand, severe asthma symptoms may become deadly when left untreated. If you’re noticing common symptoms of asthma, see your doctor for a full evaluation. And if you know you already have asthma, talk with your doctor about having an up to date asthma action plan to help you know what to do for your asthma. You may need to see your doctor yearly or more often if your asthma is not well controlled.