Health Guide

Asthma in adults

What is it?

  • Asthma (AS-muh) is a long-term illness that causes the airways of the lungs to be irritated, make mucus, and to swell. You may have some airway swelling all the time, even when you feel OK. Your airways may also become smaller, causing you to have breathing problems or to wheeze. Wheezing is a loud noise you hear when you breathe in or out. An asthma attack happens when your airways narrow, making it hard to breathe. Asthma attacks are also called flare-ups, exacerbations (eks-as-sir-BA-shuns), or episodes (EP-uh-sodes).
  • There is no cure for asthma but it can be controlled. Medicines can control the airway swelling. You will learn to stay away from things that bother your airways, such as tobacco smoke. Your asthma may change with time. You may get new allergies or your asthma may get better or worse. Your treatment plan may need to be changed if your asthma changes. Controlling your asthma will let you keep doing your usual activities. Asthma can be managed and you should be able to live a normal life.


The following may be possible causes of an asthma attack.

  • Air pollution.
  • Animals.
  • Cold weather.
  • Dust.
  • Exercise.
  • Foods.
  • Lung infections.
  • Molds.
  • Pollens.
  • Smoke.
  • Stress.

Signs and Symptoms:

Most people with asthma have warning signs before symptoms appear. The warning signs are not the same for everyone. Your own warning signs may even be different from time to time. By learning your warning signs, you can start treatment sooner. This may keep you from having a serious asthma attack. Following are some of the warning signs of asthma or signs of an asthma attack.

  • Breathing faster than normal.
  • Feeling like your head is "stopped up."
  • Feeling tired.
  • Feeling short of breath.
  • Having a cough that may be worse at night or early morning.
  • Having a drop in your peak flow reading.
  • Having a fast heartbeat.
  • Having an itchy, scratchy, or sore throat.
  • Having a tight feeling in the chest.
  • Wheezing.

What are the four levels of asthma?

  • Intermittent (in-ter-mit-unt): This is the least serious level of asthma. At this level a person has asthma symptoms no more than 2 times a week. He will also not be awakened at night with asthma symptoms more than 2 times a month. An asthma attack may last from a few hours to a few days. A person at this level will not have symptoms between asthma attacks. Between asthma attacks, the peak expiratory (eks-PIE-ruh-tor-e) flow or "PEF" is normal. The PEF is a measure of airflow to your lungs. A peak flow meter is used to get a PEF reading. The PEF reading will vary by less than 20%.
  • Mild persistent (per-SIS-tunt): A person at this level has asthma symptoms more than 2 times a week but not every day. He will have nighttime asthma symptoms more than 2 times a month. An asthma attack may slow his daily activities. The PEF reading will vary by 20% to 30%.
  • Moderate persistent: A person at this level has asthma symptoms every day. He will use a short-acting inhaled asthma medicine every day. He will have nighttime asthma symptoms about once a week. Asthma attacks may happen at least 2 times a week and last for many days. At this level, asthma attacks get in the way of a person's daily activities. The PEF reading may vary by more than 30%.
  • Severe persistent: This is the most serious level of asthma. A person at this level has asthma symptoms all the time. These symptoms limit a person's physical activity. Asthma attacks are common as well as nighttime symptoms. The PEF reading may vary by more than 30%.

Medical Care:

You and your caregiver will make an asthma treatment plan. You may need any or all of the following to control your asthma.

  • Allergy testing.
  • Medicine to control the swelling of your airways. Following are the 2 groups of asthma medicines.
  • Correct use of a peak flow meter. A peak flow meter is a device that measures how well air moves out of your lungs. A peak flow meter is used to check your asthma the way that a blood pressure cuff is used to check blood pressure. The peak flow meter can be used to learn if there is narrowing in your airways, days before you have asthma symptoms. Using the peak flow meter correctly will help you better monitor and manage your asthma.
  • Learn to watch for signs that your asthma is getting worse and what to do to stop an asthma attack.
  • You can usually care for yourself at home during an asthma attack. If your breathing does not get better with medicine or treatments, you may need to go into the hospital. You may need oxygen, medicine, or breathing treatments.

Dietary Measures:

Eat healthy foods from all of the 5 food groups, which are fruits, vegetables, breads, dairy products, meat, and fish. Eating healthy foods may help you feel better and have more energy. It may also help you heal faster.

Herbs and Supplements:

Before taking any herbs or supplements, ask your caregiver if it is OK. Talk to your caregiver about how much you should take. If you are using this medicine without instructions from your caregiver, follow the directions on the label. Do not take more medicine or take it more often than the directions tell you to. The herbs and supplements listed may or may not help treat your condition.

Asthma is a serious illness. The use of herbs and supplements should not take the place of good medical care.



      Complementary Therapies:

      • Acupuncture may help asthma.
      • Relaxation therapy may help asthma.
      • Yoga may help asthma.

      Other ways of treating your symptoms : Other ways to treat your symptoms are available to you.

      Talk to your caregiver if:

      • You would like medicine to treat asthma.
      • Your symptoms have not gone away or improved by these self-help measures.
      • You have chest pain.
      • Your sputum (spit) changes from clear or white, to yellow, green, gray, or bloody. You should call your caregiver if your sputum is too thick to cough up.
      • You have not been able to do your usual activities or exercise.
      • You have questions about what you have read in this document.


      • Your peak flow number goes down or does not improve after taking bronchodilator medicine. You should also get care right away if your peak flow number drops to 50% or less of your personal best.
      • You have increased wheezing, trouble breathing, or coughing.
      • You are hunching over because you are having so much trouble breathing.
      • Your lips or fingernails are gray or blue.
      • Your chest and neck are pulled or sucked in with each breath.

      Care Agreement:

      You have the right to help plan your care. To help with this plan, you must learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. You can then discuss treatment options with your caregivers. Work with them to decide what care may be used to treat you. You always have the right to refuse treatment.

      Call or write the following organizations for more information:

      • American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology 611 East Wells Street Milwaukee, WI 53202 Phone: 1-800-822-ASMA
      • American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology 85 West Algonquin Road Suite 550 Arlington Heights, IL 60005 Phone: 1-800-842-7777
      • Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America 1125 15th Street, NW Suite 502 Washington, DC 20005 Phone: 1-800-7-ASTHMA
      • National Asthma Education and Prevention Program National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Information Center PO Box 330105 Bethesda, MD 20854-0105 Phone: 301-251-1222
      • National Jewish Center for Immunology and Respiratory Medicine 1400 Jackson Street Denver, CO 80206 Phone: 1-800-222-LUNG


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      Last Updated: 7/4/2018
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