Asthma is a disease that affects the lungs, making it hard to breath. Asthma is considered a chronic (long-lasting) condition that often begins in childhood. The cause of asthma is unknown.

Asthma is not a contagious disease. In an asthma attack, symptoms can come on very suddenly and might last for a few minutes or a few days. The most common symptoms of an “asthma attack” include wheezing, labored breathing, coughing and tightness of the chest. Sometimes, the only symptom is a constant cough. The symptoms can be very mild or very severe, even life threatening.

An asthma attack occurs when the bronchial tubes become swollen and produce too much mucus. Bronchial tubes are the passages that carry air into and out of your lungs. Swelling makes the air passages smaller so breathing produces a wheezing or whistling sound. The extra mucus in the lungs causes the cough.

Asthma attacks can be triggered by allergies to pollen, mold spores, animal hair, feathers, and dust mites. Irritants such as tobacco smoke, chemicals, pollution or other irritants can also trigger asthma. Exercise can be a trigger for an asthma attack, but a person with asthma should not stop exercising. Taking asthma medicine before vigorous exercise may prevent an attack.

Exposure to cold air can also trigger an asthma attack. If cold air triggers an asthma attack, wearing a scarf, ski mask or face mask may help.

If allergies or irritants trigger your asthma attacks, your goal will be to limit the exposure to those triggers. Air conditioners and high-efficiency furnace filters will help reduce the pollen, animal dander or dust in the air. Special bed and pillow coverings can decrease the exposure to dust mites.

Tobacco smoke is a common trigger of asthma attacks. If you smoke, quit. If you have friends and family that smoke, ask them to not smoke near you. Other triggers include stress, a cold or the flu, and some drugs. Sometimes the cause of asthma attacks is unknown.

Asthma symptoms often develop gradually, with asthma attacks getting worse over time. Talk to your health care provider if you have any of these signs of asthma:

  • Cough - A cough may be the first and sometimes the only symptom of asthma. The cough may get worse at night, with exercise or after being outside in the cold.
  • Wheezing - Wheezing is a high pitched whistling noise mad while breathing. It could be only while breathing in, while breathing out, or both.
  • Difficulty breathing - A faster breathing rate, having a hard time getting air, use of pursed lips, or having a hard time talking.
  • Chest Tightness - The chest hurts, or it is hard to take a breath in.

Your asthma is under control if:

  1. You use your rescue inhaler less than two times per week.
  2. You do not experience nighttime asthma symptoms more than two times per month.
  3. You do not use more than two canisters of rescue inhaler per year.

Your health care provider can use a variety of tests to determine what is triggering your asthma attacks. These might include a complete physical exam, allergy and breathing tests, and x-rays. To control your asthma attacks, your health care provider might prescribe medicines and might recommend changes in your activities and lifestyle.

Most of all, work closely with your health care provider. He or she will help you find your triggers and help you treat or prevent your asthma attacks. There is no cure for asthma, but, with proper care and with help from your health care provider, the symptoms of your asthma can be controlled or prevented.

People with asthma can have normal, active and happy lives. The more you know about asthma, the more you’ll be able to help control the symptoms of asthma. The American Lung Association is a good source of information at 800.586.4872 or


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