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If you have asthma, it can be hard to breathe when symptoms flare. Asthma symptoms include wheezing, coughing, and a tight feeling in your chest.

There's no cure for asthma, but asthma medications and lifestyle tweaks can help you manage it with your doctor's help.

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What Is Asthma?

Doctors define asthma as a chronic lung disease where your airways swell and narrow.

Certain factors — pollen, animal dander, cold air — can trigger symptoms in people with asthma. When your asthma flares, the airways become inflamed and constricted.

Asthma is common. About one in 13 people in the U.S. have asthma. It can begin when you're a child or an adult.

Contrary to popular belief, people usually don't "grow out of" asthma if they have it as a child. Even if you don't have symptoms for months or years, you still have asthma.

But you can manage asthma by:

  • Avoiding triggers.
  • Seeing your doctor often.
  • Taking asthma medications.

What causes asthma?

Asthma happens when your immune system reacts to a substance in the lungs. The causes may vary from person to person. Doctors don't always know what causes asthma.

Factors that might trigger an asthma attack include:

  • Cold air or sudden temperature changes.
  • Exercise.
  • Indoor allergens like mold, animal dander, and dust mites.
  • Infections like colds, flu, or COVID-19.
  • Pollens, mold, and other outdoor allergens.
  • Poor quality air.
  • Some medications, like aspirin.
  • Intense emotions, like anger, crying, or laughing.

What are asthma risk factors and complications?

Some factors make you more likely to get asthma.

Asthma risk factors

Risk factors for asthma include:

  • Allergies. People with asthma often have food, pet, or pollen allergies.
  • Exposure to cigarette smoke or vapor from e-cigarettes as a child.
  • Family history. If you had a parent with asthma, you are more likely to have it.
  • Obesity. Being overweight increases your risk of having asthma. It can also make your asthma symptoms worse.
  • Race or ethnicity. African Americans and some Hispanic people have a higher risk of asthma.
  • Sex. More boys than girls have asthma in childhood. On the other hand, it's more common in teen girls and adult women than in teen boys and adult men.
  • Viral infections that affect breathing.
  • Workplace hazards. Breathing in chemicals or industrial dust makes you more likely to get asthma.

Complications of asthma

If you don't control your asthma, it can lead to complications that affect your quality of life. In the worst case — a severe asthma attack — they can be life-threatening. Complications of asthma include:

  • Absences from work and school.
  • Anxiety.
  • Depression.
  • Fatigue.
  • Growth delays in kids.
  • Lung infections.
  • Stress.

How can I prevent asthma?

You can't prevent having asthma.

You can reduce your risk of severe asthma attacks by seeing your doctor routinely and keeping up with your treatments. You and your doctor will devise an action plan to manage your condition.

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Asthma Symptoms and Diagnosis

Asthma symptoms often begin in childhood because kids are still building up their immune systems. Symptoms may come and go over time.

Even if you don't have symptoms for a long time, you still have asthma.

Sometimes asthma symptoms are worse in the morning or at night. Your symptoms may increase at certain times of the year, especially if pollen or temperature changes are triggers.

What are the signs and symptoms of asthma?

Signs and symptoms of asthma include:

  • Coughing, especially prolonged coughing at night.
  • Trouble breathing.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Tightness in the chest.
  • Wheezing, or a whistling sound when you breathe.

How do you diagnose asthma?

You should see your PCP if you or your child have any of the asthma symptoms above.

To diagnose asthma, the doctor will ask about your medical history and do a physical exam.

They may run one or more of the following tests:

  • Allergy skin or blood tests. These will tell the doctor if allergens such as pet dander or pollen cause a reaction.
  • Bronchoprovocation tests. These tests measure how your airways react to specific substances. You will breathe in allergens or medicines that may affect the muscles in your airways. Your doctor will measure how fast the air moves when you breathe.
  • Fractional exhaled nitric oxide tests. During this test, you breathe into a tube connected to a portable device. It measures how much nitric oxide is in your breath. High levels of nitric oxide indicate inflamed lungs.
  • Peak expiratory flow tests. This simple test measures how fast you can blow out air with maximum effort.
  • Spirometry. This is a lung function test where you blow as hard as possible into a tube connected to a machine. Your doctor may have you inhale medicine to relax the airways and then try again. They will compare the tests.
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What Are the Treatment Options for Asthma?

Your UPMC primary care team can diagnose and treat asthma. We tailor asthma care to you, your lifestyle, and your specific needs.

Asthma treatment may depend on:

  • How much you exercise.
  • How severe your symptoms are.
  • How your asthma responds to medicines.
  • Your age.
  • Your lifestyle.

Your doctor will work with you to make an action plan to manage your asthma, which may include learning:

  • What triggers your asthma.
  • What to do if you have an asthma attack.
  • When to call the doctor.

Your asthma treatment may include:

  • Learning to avoid your triggers. Knowing what sets off an attack and avoiding it is essential to manage your asthma. That may include knowing when air quality is bad, staying away from pets, or avoiding heavy exercise in the cold.
  • Long-term control medicine. You take these medicines every day to help control asthma symptoms. They include corticosteroids, allergy shots, and long-acting bronchodilators.
  • Quick-relief medicines. Your doctor will prescribe an inhaler to always keep with you. These short-acting medicines open the airways quickly. They may reduce swelling and allow airflow during an asthma attack.
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Last reviewed by Susan Marchezak, CRNP on 2024-05-15.