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Living Well with Asthma

Over 15 million people in the United States have asthma. People of all ages, races and income groups can have asthma. While there is no cure for asthma, symptoms such as cough, shortness of air and wheezing can be decreased or stopped with medications. Work with your doctor and respiratory therapist to enjoy a healthy and active life.

The goal of asthma treatment is to avoid breathing problems such as wheezing, tightness in the chest, cough and shortness of breath. This can be done by avoiding things that trigger you to have symptoms and by using medication that your doctor prescribes.

How to Know if Your Asthma is Controlled
Answer the following questions. In the past four weeks:

Have you used your inhaler more than twice a week?                 Yes             No
Have you missed school or work due to asthma?                          Yes            No
Have you limited physical or social activities due to asthma?   Yes            No

If you answered “yes” to any of the above, your asthma is not controlled.

Getting Control
Before you can get control of your asthma, you need to be evaluated by a doctor or health care provider who understands and uses the National Asthma Education and Prevention Program (NAEPP) Guidelines on Diagnosis and Management of Asthma. He/she will perform a breathing test and review how often you have breathing problems.

There are two types of medications used to control asthma, relief medications and controller medications.

  • Relief medications are used when you have sudden tightness in your chest, wheezing, shortness of air or increased cough. These medications relax the muscles that are around the breathing tubes to help you breathe. If you have to use a relief medication more than twice a week, tell your doctor.
  • Controller medications are taken daily to keep your airways from closing and to decrease mucous. Some people have to use more than one controller medication. The most important thing to remember about controller medications is that they need to be taken as your provider tells you, even if you are not having asthma symptoms.

Based on your symptoms and your breathing test results, your health care provider will determine what medications will work best for you. Your respiratory therapist will help you learn about these medications and how to take them properly. If you have problems using the medication or side effects that keep you from using the medication, you should let your doctor know.

Avoiding “Triggers”
A trigger is anything that causes you to cough, wheeze, and experience tightness in your chest or shortness of air. Sixty percent of all persons with asthma have some allergies. Even if you don’t test positive for allergies, there are things in the air that can irritate your lungs and cause you to have symptoms. Here are some common triggers:

  • Pollen from trees and grasses - Reduce outside activities when levels are high.
  • Animal dander - Keep animals outside or at least out of the bedroom.
  • Air pollution and high ozone levels - Reduce outside activities when levels are high.
  • Molds - Check under sinks and in basements for wet areas that grow mold.  Wear a mask or have the areas cleaned by someone else. Do not use humidifiers or swamp cooler type air conditioners as these can grow mold.
  • Dust mites - These tiny insects live in our bed linens, pillows, stuffed animals, carpet and draperies. Clean often and replace carpet with hardwood or tile floors if you can.   Wash bedding weekly in hot water (above 130º F).
  • Cockroaches – Get rid of them from your home. Do not leave food lying around and take trash out often.
  • Tobacco smoke - If you smoke, you should ask your doctor for help to quit. It is the smoke that causes asthma to worsen and could lead to emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Secondhand smoke is harmful, too, and must be avoided. Parents of children with asthma must not smoke anywhere in the house or car even if the children are not present. Smoke particles linger and can trigger breathing problems even if there is not active smoking at the time.
  • Exercise is an example of a trigger that is not in the air. Some people have breathing problems only when they exercise. People with exercise-induced asthma (EIA) often use their inhaler before they exercise. Don’t stop exercising because you have asthma.  See your doctor to get the best medicine to help you breathe while exercising so that you can remain active and healthy.


How Are You Doing?
You may even want to keep an asthma diary to list any breathing problems you are having and when you take your asthma medications. Call your doctor if you see an increase in breathing problems.

Peak flow meters are another way to monitor your breathing. A peak flow meter is a small device that measures your ability to blow out hard and fast. When your asthma is getting worse it will be harder to blow out and the number will be lower than usual. To determine what level your reading should be, it is recommended that you use the peak flow meter in the morning and at night and recording the best number out of three tries. Do this for two weeks. The highest number you get when you are not having breathing problems is your “personal best”. Your respiratory therapist and your doctor can help you learn to use the peak flow meter.

Action Plans
Work with your doctor and respiratory therapist to develop an “Action Plan”. This is a written plan that tells you how to use your inhalers and how to tell if your asthma is worse. The action plan will tell you when to call your doctor or go to the hospital.

Reviewed: May 26, 2005
Revised: June 2008

© 2018 American Association for Respiratory Care