Understanding Asthma

Asthma is often thought of as a childhood condition, but it affects more adults than children. Sometimes it is not diagnosed until you are an adult.

Asthma is a long-term disease that affects your airways. Airways are the tubes that carry air in and out of your lungs. If you have asthma, your airways can become swollen and inflamed. Swelling is a reaction to things that you are allergic to or find irritating.

When the airways react, they get narrower and less air flows through to your lungs. This makes breathing difficult and causes wheezing. This is called an asthma attack. Attacks are also called flare-ups, exacerbations or episodes.

There is no cure for asthma. Over time and working with your health care provider, asthma can be controlled so that you have fewer symptoms. Taking care of your asthma is an important part of your life. Controlling it means taking medicines as directed by your caregivers and staying away from environmental factors that irritate your airways, such as cigarette smoke.

Your asthma may change with time. It may get better or worse. And your treatment plan may need to be changed if your asthma changes. Controlling your asthma should let you keep doing your usual activities. With treatment, asthma can be managed so you are able to live a normal life.

Caregivers do not exactly know what causes asthma. If other people in your family have asthma, you are more likely to have it.

Signs and Symptoms of Asthma

You might not have all of these symptoms, or your symptoms may change. Your symptoms may also vary from one asthma episode to the next. Symptoms may be mild during one asthma episode, and severe during another. Common signs and symptoms of asthma include:

  • Coughing -- This is often worse at night or early in the morning, making it difficult to sleep
  • Wheezing -- A whistling or squeaky sound when you breathe
  • Chest Tightness -- This can feel like something is squeezing or sitting on your chest
  • Difficulty Breathing -- You may have problems breathing or feel breathless or out of breath; you may feel like you can not get enough air in or out of your lungs.

Asthma Attack Warning Signs

Most people with asthma experience warning signs before symptoms appear. The warning signs are not the same for everyone. Your own warning signs may even be different from time to time. By learning what your warning signs are, you can start treatment sooner. This may keep you from having a serious asthma attack. These are some of the warning signs of an asthma attack:

  • Breathing faster than normal
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Feeling more tired than usual
  • Itchy or sore throat
  • Shortness of breath during exercise

Treatment Tips

Try these tips to manage your condition and prevent asthma attacks:

  • Make a list of the over-the-counter and prescription medications you take and be sure all your health care providers have an up-to-date list
  • Get your treatment plan in writing from your health care provider; make sure it lists your asthma medications, their doses and when to take them
  • Learn to use a peak flowmeter; it can help you anticipate an asthma attack and adjust your medications accordingly
  • Avoid asthma triggers, such as smoke, mold and pollen; respiratory infections also can worsen asthma; talk with your health care provider about ways to prevent them
  • Have appropriate paperwork with you in case of an asthma attack: an updated list of your medications and dosages, your health insurance ID card, the name and address of the closest hospital, and the names and phone numbers of your health care providers

: This material provides general information only. It should not be used in place of the advice, instructions, or treatment given by your doctor or other health care professional.