What is asthma?

Asthma is a chronic (long term) disease of the lungs. It causes inflammation (swelling) and narrowing of the airways of the lungs. Asthma is the most common serious disease among children, affecting nine million children in the United States (www.aaaai.org).

People with asthma have swollen airways that are sensitive to certain substances. That means that when they breathe in these substances, the muscles around the airways tighten, making it more difficult to breathe. The airways generally become more swollen and produce more mucus, resulting in a smaller airway, which makes it even more difficult to breathe. This reaction causes the person to experience chest tightness, wheezing (a whistling in the lungs), shortness of breath and coughing.

People who experience these symptoms are having an asthma attack and are advised to use a rescue inhaler (also know as a bronchodilator) to relieve their symptoms. Bronchodilators (such as albuterol or levalbuterol) will help a person with asthma during an attack, but this will not cure their symptoms on a long-term basis.

People with asthma cannot be cured. Instead, asthma symptoms can be managed in an effort to prevent recurring symptoms or frequent attacks.

How can I control my asthma?

If you think you have asthma, you should talk to an allergist/immunologist, a doctor with special training to manage allergies and asthma. Asthma and Allergy physicians can assist patients to identify substances that cause asthma attacks, often referred to as asthma “triggers”. By identifying and avoiding triggers, many asthma attacks can be avoided.

In many instances, avoidance of asthma triggers alone will not prevent recurrent episodes of asthma from occurring. Patients may require the use of a daily asthma controller medication, allergy medications or a combination of both. In addition, some patients may benefit from allergy shots (also known as immunotherapy). Immunotherapy helps the body to become less sensitive to certain triggers, in the hopes that eventually, the person will not react to those triggers at all.

Talk with your doctor and be sure to keep regularly scheduled appointments, even if you are feeling well. Asthma symptoms may change from day to day, and it is important to communicate with your doctor so that they can make sure that your asthma treatment plan meets your needs. Understanding your asthma can help you control your asthma symptoms and prevent attacks.

Tips for people with asthma

If you think you have asthma, talk to an allergist.

  • Keep a diary of symptoms to help your doctor identify “triggers” that may be causing your asthma symptoms.
  • Ask for an asthma action plan/treatment plan - this will help you manage your asthma so that you know what to do to prevent an attack and what to do during an asthma attack.
  • Understand your medications! Some asthma medications are used for quick relief of symptoms and some asthma medications must be taken every day to help control your symptoms. It is important to understand the difference.

Resources for people with asthma

The following is a list of resources for people with asthma. Please keep in mind that many programs are continually in development and are subject to change without our knowledge. We will update the information as we become aware of the changes. Always check with your physician for the most accurate, up-to-date information.

  • American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (www.aaaai.org): There is a section specifically for patients and consumers regarding medications, pollen levels, research, publications and referral guidelines.
  • American Lung Association (www.lungusa.org): This website contains an overview of asthma, controlling asthma, fact sheets, early warning signs, teens and asthma, asthma camps and medications.
  • Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America(www.aafa.org): Information about asthma, causes, diagnosis, treatment, prevention and clinical trials.
  • National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute(www.nhlbi.nih.gov): Contains an overview of asthma, causes, who is at risk, signs and symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, prevention, living with asthma and links to more information.