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Asthma is a chronic disease of the airways that makes breathing difficult. Asthma can be challenging, disruptive and frightening for those who have it, and for family, friends and caregivers. Asthma is different for everyone, and its symptoms and onset varies greatly from person to person. There is currently no cure for asthma but with proper treatment, people who have asthma can live normal, healthy lives.
In this section, you will find resources that you can trust, that will start you on the path toward learning more about asthma, how to manage it and live well with asthma.
What is asthma?
Asthma is a chronic disease of the airways that makes breathing difficult. Asthma causes inflammation or swelling, and a narrowing of the airways making it more difficult to breathe. Irritated cells in the airways make more mucus than usual narrowing the tiny airways. Mucus is a normally a protective, sticky liquid that helps shield your lungs from irritants like dust, bacteria and smoke.
During normal breathing, air flows freely in and out of the lungs. However, during an asthma attack or episode, swelling of the airway’s lining increases, muscles surrounding the airways tighten, and thick mucus clogs the tiny airways making it difficult to breathe.
Watch this video by Alex Thomas, MD who explains what asthma is and how it affects your lungs. What is Asthma? - Pathophysiology of Asthma
Who gets asthma?
Asthma affects people of all ages and while it can start in adulthood, it most often starts during childhood. Young children who wheeze a lot and have frequent respiratory infections that continue beyond 6 years old are at greater risk. Genetics can also play a role in developing asthma. Having a family history of eczema, allergies, or having parents or siblings that have asthma increases risk. We aren’t exactly sure what causes asthma, but we do know exposure to certain things can trigger an asthma attack.
Asthma symptoms vary from person to person and can flare up anytime – day or night.
Symptoms may include:
- Wheezing – Wheezing is a whistling or squeaky sound when you breathe out.
- Coughing – Coughing from asthma is often worse at night or early in the morning, making it hard to sleep. Sometimes coughing can be the only symptom.
- Shortness of breath – Some people feel like they can’t catch their breath or feel breathless, as if they can’t get air out of their lungs.
- Chest tightness or pain – This can feel like something is squeezing or sitting on your chest.
Asthma symptoms vary from hour-to-hour, day-to-day, week-to-week and over months and can vary from mild to life threatening There is currently no cure for asthma, but it is manageable with proper asthma medications and by avoiding Common Asthma Triggers.
Having symptoms may mean your asthma is not well controlled. See your health care provider if:
- You have symptoms or are using your quick-relief inhaler (rescue) more than two times a week.
- You have symptoms that wake you up two or more times a month.
- You refill your rescue inhaler prescription more than two times per year.
- Your asthma is getting in the way of your usual activities like going to school or work.
Don’t ignore asthma symptoms. Symptoms that are not easily relieved by using a rescue inhaler or that reoccur should be evaluated by your health care provider, or you should go to the emergency room or call 9-1-1. TAKE ASTHMA SERIOUSLY.
Common Asthma Triggers
There are many different things that trigger asthma in the home, school and work settings, and there are ways you can reduce your exposure.
Triggers may include:
- Pollutants in the air we breathe, pollen, wood smoke, cold air/weather changes, viral infections, chemicals and scented products, strong emotions, aerobic exercise and many more.
What may trigger a person’s asthma is very specific to that individual. Some of the more challenging asthma triggers can be found inside the home. These include:
- Dust mites – tiny spiders that are found in almost every home
- Mold – water leaks and humidity, the amount of moisture in the air can allow mold to grow
- Dander, saliva and excrement from furry or feathered pets like cats, dogs and birds
- Pests such as cockroaches and mice
Sensitivity to triggers varies greatly from person to person. It is important for asthma patients to talk with their health care providers to understand what triggers may cause their asthma to flare up, and learn ways to reduce exposure or eliminate triggers as much as possible.
Learn more about asthma
Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) – Asthma Resources
HCMC has a webpage for asthma patients that includes resources like how to manage asthma videos, patient handouts, an asthma control test, asthma action plans and a daily record to track your asthma symptoms.
Children’s Hospital and Clinics of Minnesota – Asthma Program
Children’s offers a number of resources to help families and their children learn how to manage asthma. Check out the top link and these specific links below for parents, kids, and teens.
A general public education video created by the American Lung Association for use with patients in schools and clinics. This 3-minute video simplifies how lungs work and shows how lungs are an essential part of the respiratory system.
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute – So You Have Asthma: A Guide for Patients and Their Families
This booklet offers the latest information on asthma management. In an easy-to-read format, it provides information about asthma symptoms, the latest treatments, and ways to monitor and keep your asthma under control. This site also includes the Clinical Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Asthma and What Is Asthma?
The American Lung Association’s (ALA) Asthma Basics
The Asthma Basics course is a free, one-hour interactive online learning module designed to help people learn more about asthma. This course is ideal for frontline healthcare professionals like nurses or community health care workers, as well as individuals who have asthma. Asthma Basics also includes comprehensive resources like asthma medication devices, and demonstration videos and downloads. This course is also available in Spanish.
Living with Asthma – National Jewish Health
National Jewish Health website includes asthma resources and educational tools for both the patient and asthma medical care team.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Learn How to Control Asthma
CDC’s National Asthma Control Program helps Americans with asthma achieve better health and improved quality of life. The program funds states, school programs, and non-government organizations to help them improve surveillance of asthma, train health professionals, educate individuals with asthma and their families, and explain asthma to the public.