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Definition    TOP

Asthma is a long-lasting health problem. It is a change in how the lining of the airways of the lungs work. Asthma makes the airways narrow and makes it hard to breathe.

Inflamed Bronchus in the Lungs

Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.


Causes    TOP

The exact cause is not known. It is likely a mix of genetics and the environment.

Some things trigger symptoms in people with asthma, such as pollen, mold, and pet dander. It causes a reaction that makes it hard to breathe.


Risk Factors    TOP

Things that may raise the risk of asthma are:

  • A family member who has asthma
  • Having allergies
  • Health problems, such as allergic rhinitis or obesity
  • Having a job in farming, painting, or cleaning
  • Regular exposure to cigarette smoke, including second-hand smoke
  • Taking certain medicines, such as aspirin

Symptoms    TOP

Some people may have mild asthma with few flare-ups. Others may have a severe asthma all the time. Symptoms may be:

  • Cough
  • A tight chest
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Problems breathing
  • Feeling tired
  • Problems sleeping
  • Having a hard time exercising

Diagnosis    TOP

The doctor will ask about your symptoms and health history. A physical exam will be done. It will focus on the lungs.

A spirometry test will be done to measure how much air is breathed in and out. It can also find out the amount and rate of air that can pass through a person's airways.


Treatment    TOP

An asthma action plan will be used to help people control asthma and handle asthma attacks. Medicine and lifestyle changes will be a part of the plan. The goal of the plan is to lower the risk of asthma attacks. A second goal is to manage attacks and ease breathing.


Some medicine is taken on a regular basis. It may help to stop asthma tacks from starting. They cannot treat an attack when it happens. Medicine may be one or more of these:

  • Inhaled corticosteroids—to prevent airway swelling
  • Inhaled long-acting beta agonists—to keep airways relaxed
  • Oral leukotriene modifiers—to prevent airway swelling, ease mucus, and open the airways
  • Inhaled cromolyn or nedocromil—to prevent airways from swelling after contact with a trigger
  • Biologic agents—if asthma is not controlled by other medicine

Other medicine can be used to treat an attack. These can help to open the airways and ease breathing::

  • Inhaled quick-acting beta agonists and anticholinergic agents—to open the airways
  • Corticosteroids pills—to ease severe swelling


Bronchial thermoplasty may be done for people with severe asthma. A tool is used to clear out excess muscle around the airway. It will help keep the airway more open during an attack.

Healthy Habits    TOP

These healthy habits may help to manage asthma:

  • Reducing exposure to triggers
  • Getting enough exercise
  • Staying at a healthy weight
  • Not smoking

Prevention    TOP

Asthma cannot be prevented.


American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology

Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America


Allergy Asthma Information Association

The Lung Association


Asthma exacerbation in adults and adolescents. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/asthma-exacerbation-in-adults-and-adolescents . Updated January 29, 2019. Accessed November 1, 2019.

Asthma in adults and adolescents. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/asthma-in-adults-and-adolescents . Updated October 11, 2019. Accessed November 1, 2019.

Asthma stepwise management in adults and adolescents. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/management/asthma-stepwise-management-in-adults-and-adolescents . Updated May 25, 2018. Accessed November 1, 2019.

Global Initiative for Asthma (GINA) global strategy for asthma management and prevention. (GINA 2018)

11/2/2015 DynaMed Plus Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T114449/Asthma-in-adults-and-adolescents : Normansell R, Kew KM, et al. Sublingual immunotherapy for asthma. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2015 Aug 28;8:CD011293.

Last reviewed September 2019 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Daniel A. Ostrovsky, MD
Last Updated: 11/1/2019

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