What Is Asthma?

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
February 17, 2023
What Is Asthma?

What is asthma? You have asthma if your airways sometimes become inflamed and grow narrow, which causes wheezing. An asthma attack can happen suddenly and be dangerous.

What is asthma?

In some people, chemicals that might not bother someone else at all trigger the sides of their airways to swell, so the air space grows narrow. For example, if you have asthma, you might begin wheezing in response to sulphur in dried apricots you eat or to ragweed in the air.

When you wheeze, you create a slight whistling sound when you exhale. Besides wheezing, your chest might feel tight, you might be able to take only short breaths, and you might cough, especially at night or early in the morning.

An asthma attack, when you are at risk of becoming short of oxygen, can happen suddenly and be dangerous.

You might have symptoms every day, or they may come rarely. The symptoms can vary even within a day but are generally worse at night or in the morning. They typically begin or get worse with colds and other viral infections.

If you are diagnosed with asthma, your doctor should give an action plan that tells you:

  • How to identify allergens or irritants to avoid
  • A medication routine
  • How to recognize and handle an attack
  • When you need more medical help or a trip to the emergency room


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What triggers asthma symptoms?

Triggers vary — learn which ones are most likely for you. Air pollution, dust mites, cockroaches, pet dander, mold, smoke from cigarettes and burning wood, sinus or virus infections, cold air, or hyperventilating from laughing or crying can trigger symptoms. So can exercise and certain foods, for some people.

For more information about possible triggers, see this list from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What can you do to lower your risk of an attack?

There is no cure for asthma, but you can control the symptoms. Besides following your action plan:

  • Obesity makes asthma harder to manage. Even a 5 to 10 percent weight loss can help symptoms.
  • Stay active. If exercise triggers attacks, talk to your doctor about how you can work around that.
  • Eat fruits and vegetables and take vitamin D if you go short of sunshine in the winter months.
  • Learn relaxation tools to manage stress and treat anxiety, depression, or panic attacks.
  • Learn breathing techniques that help reduce asthma: These include the Papworth method, the Buteyko method, learning to breathe through your nose rather than your mouth, deep belly breathing, and pursed lip breathing.
  • Quit smoking and stay away from secondhand smoke.

How is asthma treated?

Learn your triggers, avoid them, and follow your action plan. Keep in mind that asthma can change over time, so it’s important that your doctor monitor your symptoms and adjust your treatment as needed.

Most people who have asthma take medicine daily, either as a pill or mist they inhale, and have an inhaler containing medicine to protect them when symptoms flare up. Used correctly, an inhaler brings the medicine directly to your airways.

Daily medicines include corticosteroids to cut your inflammatory response. The standard metered dose “puffer” requires that you:

  1. Shake it vigorously.
  2. Breathe out completely.
  3. Breathe in through your mouth.
  4. Press down to release a spray.
  5. Continue breathing in slowly and deeply for about five seconds.

You need to hold your breath for 10 seconds before you exhale.

If you make a mistake, you very often end up swallowing much of the medication rather than inhaling it. This can happen with a daily inhaler or a “rescue” inhaler you use when you feel asthmatic.

If you swallow your medicine, you won’t be getting the right dose and might develop resistance to the medication, increasing your risk of asthma attacks and side effects. You might also develop an infection in your mouth called thrush. Pay attention if you taste bitterness after a puff or it doesn’t help you breathe.

You can monitor your asthma with a peak flow meter, comparing your numbers over time. A low number can be a warning of an asthma attack.

Other possible medications include leukotriene modifiers (a pill) and mast cell stabilizers such as cromolyn or long-acting beta2-agonists (LABAs), both of which are inhaled.

Children under the age of five are usually treated with inhaled short-acting beta2-agonists (SABAs) to relax tight muscles around their airways. They may develop tremors and rapid heartbeat.

If your asthma is severe

You might receive biologic medicines by injection every few weeks. Oral and intravenous corticosteroids can reduce inflammation.

In a procedure called a bronchial thermoplasty, your doctor will use a bronchoscope to look into your airways and apply heat that makes them thinner and may help prevent constriction.


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February 17, 2023

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN