Open Accessibility Menu


Asthma is a condition in which your airways narrow and swell and may produce extra mucus. This can make breathing difficult and trigger coughing, a whistling sound (wheezing) when you breathe out and shortness of breath.

For some people, asthma is a minor nuisance. For others, it can be a major problem that interferes with daily activities and may lead to a life-threatening asthma attack.

Asthma is a long-term disease that can’t be cured—but it can be treated. With proper treatment, you can enjoy doing the things you want to do.

Asthma is present, even when you have mild or no symptoms. That’s why it’s important to do all you can to prevent symptoms before they appear.

What does asthma feel like?

The main symptoms of asthma are:

  • Coughing—with or without mucus
  • Wheezing—a whistling noise when you breathe
  • Chest tightness—a feeling that something is squeezing or sitting on your chest
  • Shortness of breath—not being able to catch your breath

For some people, asthma signs and symptoms flare up in certain situations:

  • Exercise-induced asthma, which may be worse when the air is cold and dry
  • Occupational asthma, triggered by workplace irritants such as chemical fumes, gases or dust
  • Allergy-induced asthma, triggered by airborne substances, such as pollen, mold spores, cockroach waste, or particles of skin and dried saliva shed by pets (pet dander)

What happens when you have asthma symptoms?

Three things happen when you have asthma symptoms:

  1. Swelled up: The lining of the airways are swollen.
  2. Plugged up: An asthma trigger then makes the airway space fill with mucus.
  3. Squeezed up: An asthma trigger causes the muscle around the airway to squeeze, making the airway even smaller and further limiting airflow.


To diagnose asthma, your doctor will discuss your medical history with you and perform a physical exam. You may need a lung function test and maybe other tests, such as a chest or sinus X-ray.

Personal and medical history

Your doctor will ask you questions to understand your symptoms and their causes. Bring notes to help jog your memory. Be ready to answer questions about your family history, the medicines you take and your lifestyle. This includes any current physical problems. A history of allergies or eczema increases your chance of asthma. A family history of asthma, allergies or eczema increases your chance of having asthma, too.

Tell your doctor about any home or work exposure to environmental factors that can worsen asthma. For example, these might include pet dander, pollen, dust mites and tobacco smoke. The doctor may also ask if you get chest symptoms when you get a head cold.

Physical exam

If your doctor thinks you have asthma, they will do a physical exam. They will look at your ears, eyes, nose, throat, skin, chest and lungs. This exam may include a lung function test to detect how well you exhale air from your lungs. You may also need an X-ray of your lungs or sinuses. A physical exam then allows your doctor to review your health.

Lung function tests

To confirm asthma, your doctor may have you take one or more breathing tests known as lung function tests. These tests measure your breathing. Lung function tests are often done before and after inhaling a medicine known as a bronchodilator, which opens your airways. If your lung function improves a lot with use of a bronchodilator, you probably have asthma. Your doctor may also prescribe a trial with asthma medicine to see if it helps.


There are many effective medicines to treat asthma. Most people with asthma need two kinds: quick-relief medicines and long-term control medicines. Immunotherapy (allergy shots) can also be helpful.

Quick-relief medicines are taken at the first sign of symptoms for immediate relief:

  • Short-acting inhaled beta2-agonists
  • Anticholinergics

Both types of drugs are bronchodilators, meaning that they expand the passageways into the lungs (the bronchi), allowing more air in and out and improving breathing. They also help to clear mucus from the lungs by enabling the mucus to move more freely and get coughed out more easily.

If you have exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB), also known as exercise-induced asthma, your doctor may recommend that you use these medicines before exercise or other strenuous physical activity.

Quick-relief medicines can stop asthma symptoms, but they do not control the airway inflammation that causes the symptoms. If you find that you need your quick-relief medicine to treat asthma symptoms more than twice a week, or two or more nights a month, then your asthma is not well controlled.

Long-term control medicines are taken every day to prevent symptoms and attacks:

  • Antileukotrienes or leukotriene modifiers
  • Cromolyn sodium
  • Inhaled corticosteroids
  • Long-acting inhaled beta2-agonists (always administered with another asthma-related drug)
  • Methylxanthines
  • Oral corticosteroids
  • Immunomodulators

These medicines are taken every day, even if you do not have symptoms. The most effective long-term control medicines reduce airway inflammation and help improve asthma control.

Asthma Triggers

Pay attention to things that seem to make your asthma worse—these are called triggers. Avoid these triggers if you can. Talk with your healthcare provider if you have any questions about your asthma or your triggers.

Asthma triggers include:

  • Smoke. If you smoke, get help to quit. Don’t allow smoking in the house or car. Make sure wood-burning stoves and fireplaces are well ventilated, or avoid use, if possible.
  • Dust Mites. Keep mattresses and pillows in dust mite–proof covers. Wash your sheets and blankets each week. Use very hot water. Remove stuffed toys from the bedroom, or wash them weekly in hot water. Vacuuming may stir up dust. Stay out of rooms that are being vacuumed . Take rugs and carpets out of the bedroom.
  • Cockroaches. Don’t keep food in your bedroom. Keep food and trash sealed.
  • Pollen. Stay inside and keep windows closed when pollen levels are high.
  • Exercise. Ask your doctor if you should take asthma medicine before you exercise. Warm up before you exercise.
  • Strong Odors. Avoid perfume, powders, aerosol sprays like hair spray or insect spray, and strong-smelling cleaning products.
  • Weather. On cold days, cover your nose and mouth with a scarf to avoid breathing in cold air.
  • Pets. Keep pets with fur or feathers out of your bedroom, or home, if possible. Give your pets a bath to reduce dander.
  • Mold. Fix leaky faucets and pipes. Clean moldy areas, including shower curtains. Keep basement areas dry.
  • Cold. Avoid people with colds . Get plenty of rest. Drink plenty of fluids.
  • Stress.Try to stay calm and breathe slowly. Focus on things that keep you calm or happy.
Related Locations