What is asthma?

Asthma is a respiratory condition that is characterized by shortness of breath, chest tightness/pain, whistling or wheezing sound with exhaling, coughing or wheezing attacks, and trouble sleeping. It is caused by narrowing and swelling of the airways and increased mucus production. There is no cure for asthma, but the symptoms can be controlled with medication. There is wide variation from person to person, as well as changes as a person ages.

For some asthma sufferers, symptoms persist all the time. For others, signs and symptoms flare up only in certain situations:

  • Exercise-induced asthma – may be worse in cold, dry conditions
  • Occupational asthma – induced by work place irritants such as chemical fumes, gas, dust
  • Allergy-induced asthma – triggered by allergy attack

How do I know if I have asthma?

There are some factors that are known to be associated with an increased risk for developing asthma. These are:

  • Family history of asthma in a first degree relative
  • Having allergies
  • Being overweight
  • Being a smoker or exposed to secondhand smoke
  • Exposure to exhaust fumes/pollution
  • Exposure to occupational triggers (chemicals in farming, hairdressing, manufacturing)

If one develops frequent coughing/wheezing that lasts more than a few days, chest tightness, or shortness of breath, in combination with these factors, a visit to the doctor can help in diagnosis.

Doctors can do a number of tests to determine a diagnosis of asthma, mostly having to do with how well air moves through your lungs when you breathe. Imaging tests and allergy tests may also be considered. These tests are important as treatment is prescribed based on the severity of the symptoms. In addition, symptoms can change over time with differences in age and exposure to triggers, so careful monitoring by a doctor is crucial.

Common Asthma Treatments:

Long term asthma control medications (generally taken daily)
Type Description Medication
Inhaled medications Could be a corticosteroid, long acting airway dilator, or combination of these Flonase, Pulmicort, Serevent, Advair, Symbicort, etc.
Leukotriene modifiers (oral) Daily relief of asthma symptoms Singulair, Accolate, Zyflo
Theophylline (oral) Bronchodilator
Quick relief (rescue) medications (relief during an asthma attack or before exercise)
Type Description Medication
Inhaled medications Bronchodilators that act within minutes ProAir HFA, Ventolin HGA, Atrovent
Corticosteroids (oral, IV) Relieve airway inflammation Prednisone
Allergy medications
Type Description Medication
Allergy shots Immunotherapy Reduce immune response
Allergy injection Injection every 2-4 weeks for severe cases Xolair


There are many steps one can take to reduce the risk for asthma symptoms:

Common Asthma Triggers:

  • Airborne allergens (pollen, animal dander, mold, cockroaches, dust mites)
  • Respiratory infections such as the common cold, bronchitis, or pneumonia
  • Being physically active (exercise-induced asthma)
  • Cold air
  • Smoke or other air pollutants/irritants
  • Medications- beta blockers, ibuprofen, naproxen (Aleve)
  • Stress and strong emotions
  • Foods and drinks with sulfites and preservatives added- shrimp, dried fruit, beer, wine
  • GERD (reflux)

Avoid Triggers:

  • Use your air conditioner: this will reduce the pollen and humidity in your house, as well as prevent dust from being blown around by breezes in open windows
  • Reduce dust: use dustproof covers on furniture, install hardwood instead of carpeting, use washable curtains and blinds
  • Use a dehumidifier
  • Prevent mold: Clean damp areas, clean moldy leaves in the yard
  • Reduce pet dander: avoid pets with fur or feathers, bathe pets regularly
  • Clean environment: weekly cleaning of the house is recommended, if dusty, wear a mask
  • Cold weather precautions: wear a mask if susceptible to cold weather

Stay Healthy:

  • Exercise: maintain healthy heart and lungs with regular exercise, treat prior to exercise if necessary
  • Maintain a healthy body weight: asthma is exacerbated by being overweight
  • Control GERD (reflux) and heartburn: these conditions can damage lung tissue, treatment is available
  • Breathing exercises: may help maintain healthy lungs, reducing the need for medication
  • Vaccines: get vaccinated for influenza yearly, talk to your doctor about the pneumonia vaccine
  • Medication: take as prescribed!
  • Monitor: treat asthma symptoms early, before they become a major attack; monitor for changes in rescue inhaler use to identify triggers or worsening condition

Mayo Clinic Asthma