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What is asthma?

Asthma is a long-term disease of the airways of the lung. The airways become sensitive to triggers (allergens and irritants). With exposure to triggers, the following changes occur:

All of these factors cause the airways to narrow. This makes it hard for air to go in and out of the lungs.

What causes asthma?

The exact cause of asthma is unknown. It is believed to be partly inherited. The environment, infections, and chemicals released by the body are also involved.

Exercise causes symptoms in many people with asthma. Symptoms can occur during, or shortly after, exercise. In some people, stress or strong emotions can cause asthma symptoms.

All of the following may be asthma triggers:



Respiratory problem

  • Pollens (trees, grasses, and weeds)
  • Mold
  • Pets
  • Dust and dust mites
  • Cockroaches
  • Mice
  • Nasal allergies
  • Sinus infections
  • The flu
  • Viral infections, including the common cold



  • Strong odors perfumes, household cleaners, cooking fumes, paints, and varnishes
  • Chemicals (gases, fumes)
  • Air pollution
  • Changing weather conditions (temperature, barometric pressure, humidity, and strong winds)
  • Smoke (tobacco-inhaled or secondhand)
  • Aspirin
  • NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) such as ibuprofen, indomethacin, naproxen

Other conditions

  • GERD (gastroesophageal reflux)
  • Sleep apnea
  • Overweight
  • Depression


  • Exercise, especially in cold weather
  • Strong emotions that go along with laughing or crying

Who is at risk for asthma?

It is most common in the following people:

Other factors include the following:

What are the symptoms of asthma?

The symptoms of asthma include:

How is asthma diagnosed?

To diagnose asthma and rule out other lung disorders, health care providers rely on your medical history, physical exam, and other tests. An important test for the diagnosis and monitoring of asthma is spirometry.

A spirometer is a device that is used to determine how well the lungs are working. It measures the amount and speed of air exhaled.

Other tests may also be done to check for conditions such as allergies.

How is asthma treated?

Your healthcare provider will figure out the best treatment based on:

There is no cure for asthma. It can usually be controlled by avoiding triggers and taking medicines as prescribed by your healthcare provider.

Monitoring symptoms, and knowing what to do if symptoms get worse, is also a vital part of asthma care. Experts recommend making an Asthma Action Plan with your provider.

Medicines for asthma

The two types of asthma medicines are long-term control and short-term or quick-relief medicines. Long-term control medicines are usually taken every day to control asthma symptoms. Quick-relief medicines calm asthma symptoms fast, but only last for a short time. People with asthma may take either long-term or quick-relief medicines alone. Some people with asthma take short-term medicines along with long-term control medicines.

Your healthcare provider should regularly assess and adjust your medicines as needed.

Long-term control medicines

When you first start taking long-term control medicines, it may take a few weeks for the medicines to work. It is very important to take these medicines every day. Long-term asthma control medicines include:

Quick-relief medicines

Quick-relief medicines quickly relax the muscles around the airways. The relief only last about 2 to 3 hours. Only control medicines give long-term control and help prevent the recurrence of symptoms.

Quick-relief medicines may include:

Inhalation devices for asthma

Inhaled medicines go directly to the lungs. There are fewer side effects than medicines taken by mouth. Inhaled medicines may be anti-inflammatory or bronchodilating, or both. The devices are:

Living with asthma

Avoiding triggers is key in managing asthma. Triggers may be allergens, irritants, other health problems, exercise, medicines, and strong emotions. The following can help you limit your exposure:



Even though exercise is a common asthma trigger, you should not limit your participation in sports or exercise, unless directed by a healthcare provider. Exercise is good for your health and lungs. Activities such as swimming, golf, and karate are good choices for persons with asthma. Always warm-up before exercise and cool down at the end of exercise. Ask your provider about using your quick-relief medicine before starting exercise.


If you smoke, quit.

Avoid smoke and don’t use wood stoves or kerosene heaters. Also avoid strong perfumes, cleaning products, fresh paint, and other things with strong odors.


Some medicines can worsen asthma symptoms. These medicines include aspirin, NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), and beta-blockers used to treat heart disease and high blood pressure. Talk with your healthcare provider about your asthma history and use of these medicines.

Other health problems

Respiratory infections, such as colds and the flu, gastroesophageal reflux (GERD or heartburn), being overweight, sleep apnea, depression, and other problems can make it more difficult to control asthma. Work with your provider to treat any of these problems.

Strong emotions

Emotions that go with laughing and crying can trigger asthma symptoms. There are ways to learn how to better manage your emotions.

Key points

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider: