The basics of asthma

Is your asthma under control?

  • In the past two weeks, have you had a cough, wheezing, or shortness of breath?
  • Do you use your quick relief medicine (inhaler) more than twice a week?
  • In the past few months, has your asthma kept you from work or school or caused you to seek urgent care?
  • Has your peak flow meter reading ever fallen below 80% of your personal best reading?
  • Does your asthma keep you from doing things you would like to do?

If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, talk with your health care provider. You may need a change in your medications or treatment plan.

What is asthma?

Asthma is a lung disease that affects the airways. The airways are the tubes that carry air into the lungs. These airways divide into smaller and smaller tubes like the branches of a tree as they go deeper into the lungs. These very small airways are wrapped in muscle.

Asthma affects the airways in two major ways:

  • The airways become swollen and clogged with mucus (called inflammation)
  • Muscles go into spasm and tighten around the airways (called bronchoconstriction)

Both of these changes make it hard to move air in and out of the lungs. With proper treatment, the inflammation can be controlled and the spasms can be prevented.

What are the symptoms of asthma?

Asthma symptoms can include one or more of these:

  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness
  • Coughing
  • Trouble breathing or speaking

Symptoms may be only at night (between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m.) making it hard to sleep.

What triggers asthma?

Triggers are things that bother the sensitive airways of an asthmatic and bring on asthma symptoms. Common triggers include:

  • Allergies to pollens, molds, dust mites, animals, cockroaches, feathers, and some food products such as preservatives, nuts, and fish
  • Exercise
  • Irritants like smoke, air pollution, chemicals, cold air, fumes, and changes in weather or temperature
  • Infections like colds, flu, or sinus infections
  • Exposure to chemicals at work
  • Acid reflux (heartburn)
  • Certain types of medications such as beta-blockers or aspirin

How can you reduce reactions caused by these triggers?

Here are just a few things you can do to help get rid of asthma triggers at home:

  • Close windows and doors of your house and car, and use an air conditioner if possible
  • Stay inside during the afternoon when pollen and mold counts are highest and on ozone alert days
  • Do not mow the lawn if you must mow, wear a pollen filtration mask
  • Use a dehumidifier to reduce dampness in the house
  • Avoid indoor flowers and plants
  • Avoid foods that bring on a reaction, and check food labels carefully
  • Do not smoke, and do not allow smoking in your home or car
  • Avoid using hairspray and cleaning sprays, if possible
  • Avoid perfume, scented soaps, and scented hair or bath products
  • Use unscented household cleaning products, laundry detergent, and dryer sheets

How is asthma treated?

Asthma can be treated by controlling or avoiding asthma triggers (see above section) and through the proper use of medications. In some cases, allergy shots may be helpful.

Asthma medications are divided into two groups:

  • Controller medications are taken every day to control asthma. They work by decreasing airway swelling and inflammation.
  • Reliever medications are used for quick relief of symptoms or to prevent symptoms before exercise or exertion. These medications give relief within 5 to 15 minutes.

Most asthma medicines are taken through an inhaler called a metered dose inhaler or MDI. Some medicines are taken by mouth or from a nebulizer.

How can you help control your asthma?

In the above section, you read some tips for reducing your asthma triggers at home. In addition, you can monitor and help manage your asthma in two ways. Ask your doctor if you should:

  • Use a peak flow meter. This is a device that tells you how well air is moving in and out of your lungs. By taking regular peak flow readings, you will learn your own "personal best" number. A drop in your peak flow number alerts you to begin treatment for an asthma flare-up.
  • Use an asthma action plan. Many people with asthma have a personalized set of written instructions that tells them how to adjust their medications at home and when to call the doctor. These actions are taken based on warning signs, symptoms, and peak flow readings.

What are warning signs of an asthma flare-up?

Asthma episodes rarely happen without warning signs. These signs are different for everyone. Knowing your warning signs can help you avoid a serious asthma episode. Common warning signs include:

  • Drop in peak flow reading
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Trouble breathing or speaking
  • Chest feels tight or hurts
  • Breathing faster than normal
  • Getting out of breath easily
  • Tired, unable to sleep well
  • Itchy, watery or glassy eyes
  • Itchy, scratchy or sore throat
  • Itchy, scratchy chin or neck
  • Sneezing
  • Head feels stuffed up
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Feeling restless
  • Runny nose
  • Change in face color
  • Dark circles under eyes
  • Having a cold or the flu

When should you seek help or call the doctor for your asthma?

If you have any of these signs, call your doctor or get medical help right away:

  • You are still wheezing, coughing, or short of breath, even after you've given your medicine time to work. Most inhaled bronchodilator medicines work within 5 to 10 minutes. Talk with your doctor about the time it takes your medicine to work.
  • You have a hard time breathing. Signs of this are:
    • Chest and neck are pulled or sucked in with each breath
    • Hunching or lifting of shoulders
    • Struggling to breathe
    • Rapid breathing
    • Nostrils are flared
  • You have trouble walking or talking (not able to complete a full sentence).
  • Your peak flow rate gets lower, or does not improve after treatment with bronchodilators, or drops to 50% or less of your personal best. Discuss this peak flow level with your doctor.
  • Your lips or fingernails are gray or blue. If this happens, call 911 or have someone drive you to the emergency room right away (do not drive yourself).

Resources to help you learn more about asthma

Aurora Health Care's asthma education
Aurora offers a number of education programs to help you and your family learn how to better manage asthma:

  • Some of our hospitals and clinics offer group sessions for adults and children.
  • Some sites also sponsor asthma support groups
  • Many of our educators teach in the community at schools, churches, and community centers.

To learn about Aurora's asthma education programs near you, please call toll free: 877-728-7672.

More resources

DISCLAIMER: The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.