When you have asthma, your airways narrow and swell. They produce extra mucus, and breathing becomes difficult. The most common asthma signs and symptoms are coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath. For some people, asthma symptoms are a minor nuisance. For others, they're a major problem that interferes with daily activities. If you have severe asthma, you may be at risk of a life-threatening asthma attack.
Asthma can't be cured, but its symptoms can be controlled. Treatments include taking steps to avoid your particular asthma triggers, using long-term control medications to prevent flare-ups and using a quick-relief inhaler to control symptoms once they start. Because asthma changes over time, you'll work with your doctor to track your signs and symptoms and adjust treatment as needed.
Asthma symptoms range from minor to severe and vary from person to person. You may have mild symptoms and asthma attacks may be infrequent. Between asthma flare-ups you may feel normal and have no trouble breathing. You may have symptoms primarily at night, during exercise or when you're exposed to specific triggers. Or you may have asthma symptoms all the time. Asthma signs and symptoms include:
Signs that your asthma is probably getting worse include:
For some people, asthma symptoms flare up in certain situations:
When to see a doctor
When to seek emergency treatment
If you have asthma, the inside walls of the airways in your lungs can become inflamed and swollen. In addition, membranes in your airway linings may secrete excess mucus. The result is an asthma ...
It isn't clear why some people get asthma and others don't, but it's probably due to a combination of environmental and genetic (inherited) factors.
Asthma triggers are different from person to person. Exposure to a number of different allergens and irritants can trigger signs and symptoms of asthma, including:
Asthma is common, affecting millions of adults and children. A growing number of people are diagnosed with the condition each year, but it isn't clear why. A number of factors are thought to increase your chances of developing asthma. These include:
Exposure to allergens, exposure to certain germs, and having some types of bacterial or viral infections may also be risk factors. However, more research is needed to determine what role they may play in developing asthma.
Asthma may cause a number of complications, including:
Proper treatment makes a big difference in preventing both short-term and long-term complications caused by asthma.
Preparing for your appointment
You're likely to start by seeing your family doctor or a general practitioner. However, when you call to set up an appointment, you may be referred immediately to an allergist, pulmonologist or other specialist.
Because appointments can be brief, and because there's often a lot of ground to cover, it's a good idea to be well prepared. Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment, and what to expect from your doctor.
What you can do
Your time with your doctor is limited, so preparing a list of questions will help you make the most of your time together. List your questions from most important to least important in case time runs out. For asthma, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask questions during your appointment.
What to expect from your doctor
Tests and diagnosis
Diagnosing asthma can be difficult. Signs and symptoms can range from mild to severe and are often similar to those of other conditions, including emphysema, early congestive heart failure or vocal cord problems. Children often develop temporary breathing conditions that have symptoms similar to asthma. For example, it can be hard to tell asthma from wheezy bronchitis, pneumonia or reactive airway disease.
In order to rule out other possible conditions, your doctor will do a physical exam and ask you questions about your signs and symptoms and about any other health problems. You may also be given lung (pulmonary) function tests to determine how much air moves in and out as you breathe.
Tests to measure lung function include:
Lung function tests often are done before and after taking a bronchodilator (brong-koh-DIE-lay-tur) such as albuterol to open your airways. If your lung function improves with use of a bronchodilator, it's likely you have asthma.
Other tests to diagnose asthma include:
How asthma is classified
Asthma is classified into four general categories:
Treatments and drugs
Prevention and long-term control is the key to preventing asthma attacks. Treatment usually involves learning to recognize your triggers and taking steps to avoid them, and tracking your breathing to make sure your daily asthma medications are keeping symptoms under control. In case of an asthma flare-up, you may need to use a quick-relief inhaler such as albuterol.
Long-term control medications
Treatment for allergy-induced asthma
Don't rely on quick-relief medications
If you do have an asthma flare-up, a quick-relief inhaler can ease your symptoms right away. But if your long-term control medications are working properly, you shouldn't need to use your quick-relief inhaler very often. Keep a record of how many puffs you use each week. If you need to use your quick-relief inhaler more often than your doctor recommends, see your doctor. You probably need to adjust your long-term control medication.
Treatment by severity for better control: A stepwise approach
Asthma action plan
Lifestyle and home remedies
Although many people with asthma rely on medications to prevent and relieve symptoms, you can do several things on your own to maintain your health and lessen the possibility of asthma attacks.
Avoid your triggers
There's some evidence that certain alternative treatments may help with asthma symptoms. However, keep in mind that these treatments are not a replacement for medical treatment — especially if you have severe asthma. Talk to your doctor before taking any herbs or supplements, as some may interact with medications you take. While some alternative remedies are used for asthma, in most cases more research is needed to see how well they work and to measure the extent of possible side effects. Alternative asthma treatments include:
Coping and support
Asthma can be challenging and stressful. You may sometimes become frustrated, angry or depressed because you need to cut back on your usual activities to avoid environmental triggers. You may also feel hampered or embarrassed by the symptoms of the disease and by complicated management routines. Children in particular may be reluctant to use an inhaler in front of their peers.
But asthma doesn't have to be a limiting condition. The best way to overcome anxiety and a feeling of helplessness is to understand your condition and take control of your treatment. Here are some suggestions that may help:
Working together, you and your doctor can design a step-by-step plan for living with your condition and preventing asthma attacks.
Last Updated: 2010-05-27
© 1998-2014 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). All rights reserved. A single copy of these materials may be reprinted for noncommercial personal use only. "Mayo," "Mayo Clinic," "MayoClinic.com," "Mayo Clinic Health Information," "Reliable information for a healthier life" and the triple-shield Mayo logo are trademarks of Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research.
Terms and conditions of use