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Managing Your Asthma

| Healthy You | Chronic Conditions

Man wearing a backpack uses an inhaler outside

Managing your asthma is the best way to ensure you are keeping symptoms under control and your lungs healthy

Asthma is a chronic lung disease that makes it harder to move air in and out of your lungs. People who have asthma experience bouts of shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing or tightness in their chest. More than 26 million Americans, including 6.1 million children, have asthma. The condition causes millions of lost work and school days every year. There is no cure for asthma, but it can be controlled. Whether you are dealing with asthma yourself or care for a child or support another family member with asthma, understanding how to manage it will greatly improve the condition.  

Create a plan with your healthcare provider

Finding a healthcare provider you trust and feel comfortable visiting regularly is crucial. Together you can create a plan to manage your condition. 

There are four known types of asthma, and the management steps vary slightly depending on your asthma type. Your doctor will prescribe medicines that help control asthma. You will breathe better and have fewer symptoms by taking the right medicine at the right time. 

Asthma Treatments

There are many good treatments available. Asthma medicines come in two types—quick-relief and long-term control. Quick-relief medicines control the symptoms of an asthma attack. If you need to use your quick-relief medicines more often, visit your doctor to see if you need a different medicine. Long-term control medicines help you have fewer and milder attacks, but they don't help you while you are having an asthma attack.

Bronchodilators, also known as inhalers, relax the airways, making breathing easier. Inhalers often contain albuterol, which helps prevent difficulty breathing, wheezing and shortness of breath. For most inhalers, it’s important to use a spacer, which is a tube that attaches to the inhaler and helps to ensure that the medication gets into the lungs and not just the mouth or surrounding air.

Anti-inflammatory medicines, called corticosteroids, reduce the swelling and mucus production inside the airways. When inflammation is reduced, it is easier to breathe. Allergy medications, like loratadine or cetirizine, can be very helpful when there is an allergic component to asthma.

Be aware of common asthma triggers 

With asthma, swollen airways become extra sensitive to some things that you are exposed to in the environment every day. When you breathe in a trigger, your airways create extra mucus and swell even more, making breathing difficult. When this happens, it is known as an asthma flare-up or "attack." 

Knowing what triggers you can help prevent an asthma attack. Some triggers include: 

  • Weather, pollen and air pollution 
  • Smoke
  • Allergies, mold or pets
  • Respiratory viruses or colds
  • Exercise
  • Strong odors
  • Strong emotions or stress

Keep a detailed journal of what triggers you in various environments so you can avoid them as much as possible. 

After an asthma flare-up, you will likely feel tired and are at a greater risk of having another flare-up in the next several days.

Create an asthma action plan

An asthma action plan created with your doctor includes written instructions for early treatment of your asthma symptoms, the steps to take if your asthma is getting worse and when to call your healthcare provider or go to the emergency room. 

Creating an action plan is especially important if your child has asthma and attends school or day care. A specialized plan for school-aged children gives caregivers instructions for care and authorization to administer treatment or indicates that a child can administer their own treatment. 

Asthma action plans also include your "peak flow measurements." A peak flow meter is a hand-held device that shows how well air moves out of your lungs. These measurements indicate how well your asthma is controlled, tell you how bad an attack is and if your medicine is working and helps your doctor learn if your asthma is worsening. 

Physical activity and asthma

While it may seem counterintuitive, physical exercise has many benefits for people with asthma. Daily exercise helps improve your lung capacity and promotes blood flow to your lungs and heart. 

Before starting an exercise routine, talk with your doctor to determine if there are specific exercises you should avoid or any medications you should take before exercising. Other recommendations include starting with a warmup period and ending with a cool-down period, covering your nose and mouth with a scarf when exercising outdoors in cold temperatures, and limiting exercise or strenuous activities when outside air quality is unhealthy. 

Other tips for managing asthma

  • Breathing exercises: Practicing deep-breathing exercises, like "Belly Breathing" (or diaphragmatic breathing), can help manage asthma. When experiencing shortness of breath, try using a "Pursed Lip" breathing technique to relax your airways.
  • Manage stress: Since emotions are a trigger, leading a low-stress lifestyle is essential. 
    • Talk with someone, either a friend, family member or professional therapist, about what is stressing you. 
    • Set short- and long-term goals that you can track and meet
    • Eat a diet rich in fruit and vegetables, whole grains and lean meats
    • Exercise most days of the week.
    • Get a good night's sleep.
  • Vaccinations: With asthma, you are at greater risk for severe illness from the flu and pneumonia. To protect yourself against the flu, you should be immunized every year. There are two pneumonia vaccines. Pneumovax 23 is administered once, but sometimes a booster is recommended, and Prevnar 13 is recommended for older adults. Ask your primary care physician about what vaccines you should get.

By working with your doctor, knowing your triggers and regularly taking your medication, you can lead a healthy life free from constant worry about your next asthma attack. 

If you have concerns about your lung health, schedule an appointment with your primary care provider. 

Sources: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, American Lung Association, CDC