Asthma is a condition in which your airways narrow and swell and produce extra mucus. This can make breathing difficult and trigger coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath.
For some people, asthma is a minor nuisance. For others, it can be a major problem that interferes with daily activities and may lead to a life-threatening asthma attack.
Asthma can't be cured, but its symptoms can be controlled. Because asthma often changes over time, it's important that you work with your doctor to track your signs and symptoms and adjust treatment as needed.
Asthma symptoms range from minor to severe and vary from person to person. You may have infrequent asthma attacks, have symptoms only at certain times — such as when exercising — or have symptoms all the time.
Asthma signs and symptoms include:
Shortness of breath
Chest tightness or pain
Trouble sleeping caused by shortness of breath, coughing or wheezing
A whistling or wheezing sound when exhaling (wheezing is a common sign of asthma in children)
Coughing or wheezing attacks that are worsened by a respiratory virus, such as a cold or the flu
Signs that your asthma is probably worsening include:
Asthma signs and symptoms that are more frequent and bothersome
Increasing difficulty breathing (measurable with a peak flow meter, a device used to check how well your lungs are working)
The need to use a quick-relief inhaler more often
For some people, asthma symptoms flare up in certain situations:
Exercise-induced asthma, which may be worse when the air is cold and dry
Occupational asthma, triggered by workplace irritants such as chemical fumes, gases or dust
Allergy-induced asthma, triggered by particular allergens, such as pet dander, cockroaches or pollen
When to see a doctor
Seek emergency treatment
Severe asthma attacks can be life-threatening. Work with your doctor ahead of time to determine what to do when your signs and symptoms worsen — and when you need emergency treatment. Signs of an asthma emergency include:
Rapid worsening of shortness of breath or wheezing
No improvement even after using a quick-relief inhaler, such as albuterol
Shortness of breath when you are doing minimal physical activity
Contact your doctor
If you think you have asthma. If you have frequent coughing or wheezing that lasts more than a few days or any other signs or symptoms of asthma, see your doctor. Treating asthma early may prevent long-term lung damage and help keep the condition from worsening over time.
To monitor your asthma after diagnosis. If you know you have asthma, work with your doctor to keep it under control. Good long-term control helps you feel better on a daily basis and can prevent a life-threatening asthma attack.
If your asthma symptoms get worse. Contact your doctor right away if your medication doesn't seem to ease your symptoms or if you need to use your quick-relief inhaler more often. Don't try to solve the problem by taking more medication without consulting your doctor. Overusing asthma medication can cause side effects and may make your asthma worse.
To review your treatment. Asthma often changes over time. Meet with your doctor on a regular basis to discuss your symptoms and make any needed treatment adjustments.
It isn't clear why some people get asthma and others don't, but it's probably due to a combination of environmental and genetic (inherited) factors.
Exposure to various substances that trigger allergies (allergens) and irritants can trigger signs and symptoms of asthma. Asthma triggers are different from person to person and can include:
Airborne allergens, such as pollen, animal dander, mold, cockroaches and dust mites
Allergic reactions to some foods, such as peanuts or shellfish
Respiratory infections, such as the common cold
Physical activity (exercise-induced asthma)
Air pollutants and irritants, such as smoke
Certain medications, including beta blockers, aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, others) and naproxen (Aleve)
Strong emotions and stress
Sulfites and preservatives added to some types of foods and beverages
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a condition in which stomach acids back up into your throat
Menstrual cycle in some women
Treatment & Drugs
Prevention and long-term control are key in stopping asthma attacks before they start. Treatment usually involves learning to recognize your triggers and taking steps to avoid them, and tracking your breathing to make sure your daily asthma medications are keeping symptoms under control. In case of an asthma flare-up, you may need to use a quick-relief inhaler, such as albuterol.
The right medications for you depend on a number of things, including your age, your symptoms, your asthma triggers and what seems to work best to keep your asthma under control. Preventive, long-term control medications reduce the inflammation in your airways that leads to symptoms. Quick-relief inhalers (bronchodilators) quickly open swollen airways that are limiting breathing. In some cases, allergy medications are necessary.
Long-term asthma control medications, generally taken daily, are the cornerstone of asthma treatment. These medications keep asthma under control on a day-to-day basis and make it less likely you'll have an asthma attack. Types of long-term control medications include:
Inhaled corticosteroids. These medications include fluticasone (Flovent Diskus, Flonase), budesonide (Pulmicort, Rhinocort), mometasone (Nasonex, Asmanex Twisthaler), ciclesonide (Alvesco, Omnaris), flunisolide (Aerobid, Aerospan HFA), beclomethasone (Qvar, Qnasl) and others. You may need to use these medications for several days to weeks before they reach their maximum benefit. Unlike oral corticosteroids, these corticosteroid medications have a relatively low risk of side effects and are generally safe for long-term use.
Leukotriene modifiers. These oral medications — including montelukast (Singulair), zafirlukast (Accolate) and zileuton (Zyflo) — help relieve asthma symptoms for up to 24 hours. In rare cases, these medications have been linked to psychological reactions, such as agitation, aggression, hallucinations, depression and suicidal thinking. Seek medical advice right away for any unusual reaction.
Long-acting beta agonists. These inhaled medications, which include salmeterol (Serevent) and formoterol (Foradil, Perforomist), open the airways. Some research shows that they may increase the risk of a severe asthma attack, so take them only in combination with an inhaled corticosteroid. And because these drugs can mask asthma deterioration, don't use them for an acute asthma attack.
Combination inhalers. These medications — such as fluticasone-salmeterol (Advair Diskus), budesonide-formoterol (Symbicort) and mometasone-formoterol (Dulera) — contain a long-acting beta agonist along with a corticosteroid. Because these combination inhalers contain long-acting beta agonists, they may increase your risk of having a severe asthma attack.
Theophylline. Theophylline (Theo-24, Elixophyllin, others) is a daily pill that helps keep the airways open (bronchodilator) by relaxing the muscles around the airways. It's not used as often now as in past years.
Quick-relief (rescue) medications are used as needed for rapid, short-term symptom relief during an asthma attack — or before exercise if your doctor recommends it. Types of quick-relief medications include:
Short-acting beta agonists. These inhaled, quick-relief bronchodilators act within minutes to rapidly ease symptoms during an asthma attack. They include albuterol (ProAir HFA, Ventolin HFA, others), levalbuterol (Xopenex HFA) and pirbuterol (Maxair). Short-acting beta agonists can be taken using a portable, hand-held inhaler or a nebulizer — a machine that converts asthma medications to a fine mist, so they can be inhaled through a face mask or a mouthpiece.
Ipratropium (Atrovent). Like other bronchodilators, ipratropium acts quickly to immediately relax your airways, making it easier to breathe. Ipratropium is mostly used for emphysema and chronic bronchitis, but it's sometimes used to treat asthma attacks.
Oral and intravenous corticosteroids. These medications — which include prednisone and methylprednisolone — relieve airway inflammation caused by severe asthma. They can cause serious side effects when used long term, so they're used only on a short-term basis to treat severe asthma symptoms.
If you have an asthma flare-up, a quick-relief inhaler can ease your symptoms right away. But if your long-term control medications are working properly, you shouldn't need to use your quick-relief inhaler very often. Keep a record of how many puffs you use each week. If you need to use your quick-relief inhaler more often than your doctor recommends, see your doctor. You probably need to adjust your long-term control medication.
Allergy medications may help if your asthma is triggered or worsened by allergies. These include:
Allergy shots (immunotherapy). Over time, allergy shots gradually reduce your immune system reaction to specific allergens. You generally receive shots once a week for a few months, then once a month for a period of three to five years.
Omalizumab (Xolair). This medication, given as an injection every two to four weeks, is specifically for people who have allergies and severe asthma. It acts by altering the immune system.
Allergy medications. These include oral and nasal spray antihistamines and decongestants as well as corticosteroid and cromolyn nasal sprays.
This treatment — which isn't widely available nor right for everyone — is used for severe asthma that doesn't improve with inhaled corticosteroids or other long-term asthma medications. Generally, over the span of three outpatient visits, bronchial thermoplasty heats the insides of the airways in the lungs with an electrode, reducing the smooth muscle inside the airways. This limits the ability of the airways to tighten, making breathing easier and possibly reducing asthma attacks.
Treat by severity for better control: A stepwise approach
Your treatment should be flexible and based on changes in your symptoms, which should be assessed thoroughly each time you see your doctor. Then, your doctor can adjust your treatment accordingly. For example, if your asthma is well controlled, your doctor may prescribe less medicine. If your asthma isn't well controlled or is getting worse, your doctor may increase your medication and recommend more-frequent visits.
Asthma action plan
Work with your doctor to create an asthma action plan that outlines in writing when to take certain medications, or when to increase or decrease the dose of your medications based on your symptoms. Also include a list of your triggers and the steps you need to take to avoid them.
Your doctor may also recommend tracking your asthma symptoms or using a peak flow meter on a regular basis to monitor how well your treatment is controlling your asthma.
Lifestyle & Home Remedies
Although many people with asthma rely on medications to prevent and relieve symptoms, you can do several things on your own to maintain your health and lessen the possibility of asthma attacks.
Avoid your triggers
Taking steps to reduce your exposure to things that trigger asthma symptoms is a key part of asthma control. It may help to:
Use your air conditioner. Air conditioning reduces the amount of airborne pollen from trees, grasses and weeds that finds its way indoors. Air conditioning also lowers indoor humidity and can reduce your exposure to dust mites. If you don't have air conditioning, try to keep your windows closed during pollen season.
Decontaminate your decor. Minimize dust that may worsen nighttime symptoms by replacing certain items in your bedroom. For example, encase pillows, mattresses and box springs in dust-proof covers. Remove carpeting and install hardwood or linoleum flooring. Use washable curtains and blinds.
Maintain optimal humidity. If you live in a damp climate, talk to your doctor about using a dehumidifier.
Prevent mold spores. Clean damp areas in the bath, kitchen and around the house to keep mold spores from developing. Get rid of moldy leaves or damp firewood in the yard.
Reduce pet dander. If you're allergic to dander, avoid pets with fur or feathers. Having pets regularly bathed or groomed also may reduce the amount of dander in your surroundings.
Clean regularly. Clean your home at least once a week. If you're likely to stir up dust, wear a mask or have someone else do the cleaning.
Cover your nose and mouth if it's cold out. If your asthma is worsened by cold or dry air, wearing a face mask can help.
Taking care of yourself and treating other conditions linked to asthma will help keep your symptoms under control. For example:
Get regular exercise. Having asthma doesn't mean you have to be less active. Treatment can prevent asthma attacks and control symptoms during activity. Regular exercise can strengthen your heart and lungs, which helps relieve asthma symptoms. If you exercise in cold temperatures, wear a face mask to warm the air you breathe.
Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight can worsen asthma symptoms, and it puts you at higher risk of other health problems.
Eat fruits and vegetables. Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables may increase lung function and reduce asthma symptoms. These foods are rich in protective nutrients (antioxidants) that boost the immune system.
Control heartburn and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).It's possible that the acid reflux that causes heartburn may damage lung airways and worsen asthma symptoms. If you have frequent or constant heartburn, talk to your doctor about treatment options. You may need treatment for GERD before your asthma symptoms improve.