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Asthma Basics


What is Asthma?

Asthma is a disease affecting the airways that carry air into and out of the lungs.  People with asthma have sensitive airways that become irritated and swollen when certain “trigger” elements, like pollen and pet dander, enter their airways. Symptoms of asthma commonly include coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, and/or excessive mucus. These symptoms vary from person to person and also may decrease over time and return later in life.


Anyone can get Asthma!

Although asthma develops most commonly in children before the age of five and adults in their thirties, anyone can develop asthma.  You are most likely to develop asthma if one of your parents has it and if you have allergies. At least 80% of children and 50% of adults with asthma also have allergies.


What causes Asthma?

Asthma is triggered by various elements in our environment, both natural and man-made. The following are some of the elements that trigger the airways to become inflamed and make breathing difficult.


Allergens such as:

• dust mites, plant pollen, pet dander, molds


Irritants such as:

• smoke from cigarettes, wood fires, and charcoal grills; fumes from household cleaners, paint, perfumes, and gasoline
• dry wind, cold air, and sudden weather changes
• exercise and activities that make you breathe harder
• laughing, yelling, and crying when they cause changes in breathing patterns


Infections such as:

• common colds, sore throats, and sinus infections


Asthma Episodes: What’s happening?

When triggers are present, asthma sufferers experience an episode, in which they may cough, wheeze, and/or have difficulty breathing.  This happens as the lining of the airways becomes swollen and irritated by the trigger.  Along with the swelling, the muscles around the airways tighten, and mucus clogs the airways.  As a result, the airways are very narrow and sufferers feel like they are trying to breath through a straw that is stuffed with cotton.


Asthma Episodes are Preventable

Asthma is a chronic disease that must be constantly monitored.  Symptoms may be better or worse at times, but asthma sufferers need to be aware of how well they are breathing.  It is important to find out all you can about asthma and your own triggers, how to relieve symptoms, and how to prevent them.  Obviously, avoiding triggers is the first step, but many of the triggers in our environment cannot be avoided.  Every person who suffers from asthma needs to develop an asthma management plan with his or her doctor.


Asthma Management Plan

Every person with asthma should receive a written asthma management plan from his or her doctor. It should help you to:

• Identify and minimize contact with your asthma triggers.
• Understand and take medications as prescribed.
• Monitor your asthma and recognize early signs that it is worsening.
• Know what to do when your asthma is worsening.


Know Your Triggers

You need to know what triggers your episodes, so you can avoid these things or prepare yourself for contact with them. Make notes of any contact with possible triggers in a diary that you review with your doctor. Reviewing this information will help you find trends in the occurrence of your episodes. Allergy testing may also be needed to identify triggers. With this information you will know what to avoid and when to take preventive medications.


Take Your Medication

Medication is available to prevent episodes and to relieve episodes that have already begun. Many asthma medicines are taken through a metered dose inhaler (MDI), dry powder inhaler (DPI), or nebulizer. Proper use of your inhaler is essential to treatment. See your doctor for detailed instructions on how to use your inhaler.


Stop Episodes Before They Start

Asthma episodes can be avoided if you take long-term control medications that reduce your body’s response to your triggers.

• Long-Term Control Medications
• Called anti-inflammatory because they prevent or reduce swelling and inflammation in the airways.
• Prevent asthma episodes because airways are less sensitive to triggers.
• Needed for people who have symptoms more than once or twice a week.
• Inhaled: Cromolyn
• Corticosteroids
• Long-acting Beta Agonist used with inhaled steroid
• Oral: Corticosteroids**

Antileukotrienes prevent the production or activity of leukotrienes, substances in your body that cause narrowing of airways, swelling, and mucus production.

Injected: Xolair (Anti-IgE approved for moderate to severe asthma).

* Inhaled corticosteroids are safe when taken as directed.  They are different from the anabolic steroids taken illegally by some athletes.

** Ask your doctor about possible side effects of oral corticosteroids.


Quick-Relief Medications

Called broncodilators because they open airways by relaxing the tightened muscles.

Used during an episode to relieve symptoms.

Using a broncodilator more than 3 times per week means you need an anti-inflammatory.

Inhaled: Short-acting Beta Agonist

Oral: Beta Agonist (tablets or syrup)



Monitor Your Asthma

Symptoms can be better or worse at various times.  Don’t be fooled into thinking your asthma is gone.  Use a peak flow meter to measure your breathing.  Asthma episodes rarely occur without warning, but sometimes the symptoms come on so slowly that they are difficult to notice.  To be in control of your asthma, you must look for early warning signs: chest tightness, shortness of breath, and tiredness.  Take your medication as soon as possible.


Know What to Do If Your Asthma Gets Worse

Keep a diary of your asthma episodes.  Are they more frequent and more severe?  Are they less frequent and less severe?  Work together with your doctor and discuss the trends in your asthma episodes.  It is important to know which medicines work for you and how they work, so that you can take the right ones for each situation. Your plan should tell you what to take, how much, how often, and what to do if the medication is not working.
People with asthma can lead physically active lives simply by knowing what triggers their episodes and taking the appropriate preventive medications.


Currently there is no cure for asthma. However, medical researchers worldwide are making tremendous progress in learning what causes asthma and how to prevent episodes.