If you suffer from asthma, you are a member of a community of more than 20 million other Americans living with the disease. You are also the most essential member of your asthma team, which includes everyone from your doctor, pharmacist, and health insurer to your friends and family.
Together, we can help you:
- Understand your condition
- Keep your asthma under control
- Support your provider's treatment plan
- Improve your self-management skills
Join us as we explore the signs, symptoms, causes, and treatments of asthma, and start you on the path to exceptional asthma management.
What Is Asthma?
Asthma is a chronic lung condition that causes your airways to narrow in response to various triggers like allergies, exercise, and even cold air, making it difficult for you to breathe. According to the latest figures from the National Institute of Health, over 20 million people in the United States suffer from the disease—and that number is rising. Fortunately, by taking the proper steps and precautions, you can prevent most attacks from happening at all.
To learn more about how asthma affects the airways, visit the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute's website.
What Are the Symptoms of Asthma?
Asthma sufferers say that having asthma is like running for five minutes, then trying to breathe through a tiny coffee straw. Typical symptoms include difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, wheezing (a rasping or whistling sound when you breathe), coughing or spitting up mucus, tightness in the chest, and restless sleep or insomnia.
What Causes an Asthma Attack?
Asthma attacks are usually set off by triggers, though they can sometimes strike unexpectedly. Here are some of the common causes:
- Allergens, such as dust mites, cockroaches, pollen, mold, smog, and pet dander
- Tobacco smoke
- Strong odors or fumes, such as from perfume, paint, hair spray, pesticides, and household cleaners
- Smoke from a wood-burning fire
- Cold air
- Common cold, flu, and respiratory infections
- Strong emotions, such as getting upset or angry
Monitoring Your Asthma
If you have asthma, paying close attention to your condition is critical to your overall health. That's where a peak flow meter and an asthma diary can come in handy.
A peak flow meter is a small, hand-held device that measures the force of air as you blow out. A strong, hard breath means your asthma is under control, and a small, weak breath will alert you that asthma may be squeezing your airways.
Paired with a peak flow meter, an asthma diary is a great way to monitor your symptoms. It can help you tell if your asthma is under control or if it's starting to get worse, especially if you have a hard time identifying your triggers. Just write down your peak flow readings at regular intervals throughout the day and whenever you are feeling asthma symptoms start to kick in. You can then review your asthma diary with your doctor to help uncover a pattern and create a personalized action plan.
Treating Your Asthma
Asthma can't be cured, but it can be controlled. By treating your asthma with medications and avoiding the triggers that bring on your attacks, you can keep your airways open and keep feeling your best.
There are two basic kinds of medications for the treatment of asthma: quick relief and long-term control medications.
Quick-relief (rescue) medications are used to relieve symptoms during an attack and include short-acting bronchodilators (inhalers), such as Proventil, Ventolin, and Xopenex.
Long-term control medications are used on a regular basis to prevent attacks, not for treatment during an attack, and include:
- Inhaled steroids, such as Azmacort, Vanceril, AeroBid, and Flovent, prevent inflammation
- Leukotriene inhibitors, such as Singulair and Accolate
- Anti-IgE therapy, such as Xolair, given by injection to patients with more severe asthma
- Long-acting inhalers, such as Serevent, help open airways
- Cromolyn sodium (Intal) or nedocromil sodium
- Aminophylline or theophylline (not prescribed as frequently as in the past)
Inhalers are the most common form of treatment for asthma, but not all inhalers are used the same way. Some of them are dry powders while others are metered dose inhalers. Ask your doctor and other clinicians on your health care team to show you the right way to use your inhaler. Furthermore, if you have a metered dose inhaler, it may include a spacer, a plastic tube that carries medicine from the inhaler directly to the mouth. A spacer lets patients breathe at their own pace and helps deliver the medicine deep into the airways. Spacers are especially helpful for young children and people taking corticosteroids.
Whatever type of inhaler you have, follow the instructions exactly and talk with your doctor to make sure you are using it correctly. If you have any doubts, bring your inhalers with you to your next appointment and demonstrate your technique. Ask your doctor or another clinician on your health care team about how to know when it is time to refill your inhaler.
To learn more about asthma medications, such as their potential side effects, use, and drug-to-drug interactions, visit the AHealthyMe Drug Database.
Asthma Action Plan
An asthma action plan is a strategy that you develop with your doctor so that you, your doctor, and your family know what to expect in the event of an asthma attack.
Action plans include:
- When and how to use your medication(s)
- Your peak flow readings
- How to manage your triggers
- What to do when an asthma attack happens
Make sure that you and your family understand your action plan and be sure to review it with your doctor at least once a year.
Check out the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute's template for an asthma action plan and an extensive list of common triggers.
Smoking and Asthma
Lighting up is just about the last thing a person with asthma should do. Tobacco smoke, including secondhand smoke, damages the cells that make the protective coating of mucus lining the bronchial tubes. Without their first line of defense, the tubes become irritated and inflamed, setting the stage for an asthma attack. Smoke also makes the airways slow to heal.
If you are a smoker and want to put down the pack for good, the online resources of Living Healthy Smoke FreeSM may be just what you need to start living your life smoke-free.
Note: You and your doctor should always work together to determine the best treatment plan for managing your asthma. Some medications referenced may be subject to medical policy and/or not covered by your pharmacy benefit, so check with your plan sponsor or employer about the specifics of your benefit. Additionally, generics are usually the lowest cost option, so please talk to your doctor to determine if generics may be appropriate for you.
Tools & Resources
For more tools, resources, and information about asthma, visit these trusted websites:
- AHealthyMe — Get the latest news and updates related to your asthma.
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: What Is Asthma? — Get expert information on the causes, risks, and treatments of asthma.
- Massachusetts Department of Public Health — Get information about asthma and your environment.