What is asthma?

Downloadable PDF version - What is Asthma  | En Español

Downloadable PDF version- Asthma Overview  | En Español

Asthma is a disease that affects the lungs. It can last a lifetime. Even if asthma symptoms are not active, asthma is still there. There is no cure for asthma, but there are many things that can be done to help control it.

Diagram of lungs with close up of normal clear airway

It is important to keep asthma in good control. When asthma is in good control the lungs are healthy and breathing is easier. With good control there will be:

  • Fewer asthma symptoms
  • Fewer missed school or work days
  • Fewer visits to the emergency room
  • The ability to be more active
Diagram of Lungs with close up of a constricted airway due to asthma

How does asthma affect the lungs?

The lungs are made up of many tiny airways. The airways carry air in and out of the lungs.

When an asthma attack happens:

  • The airways become swollen
  • The airways make more mucous
  • Muscles around the airways squeeze tight

What are the signs and symptoms of asthma?

When asthma begins to flare or act up, it is harder to breathe. You may start to cough or wheeze, or your chest may feel tight. These symptoms may get worse. This is often called an asthma attack.

What can cause asthma symptoms or make symptoms worse?

Triggers are things that can cause asthma symptoms or make symptoms worse. Triggers can be things like smoke, allergies, illness, or strong smells. Avoiding triggers can reduce the chance of an asthma attack and may decrease the need for more medicine.

How do asthma medicines help?

Asthma medicines help the lungs stay healthy. There are two main types of asthma medicine:

  • Controller medicine. This medicine helps decrease the swelling in the airways. It works slowly and needs to be taken every day.
  • Rescue medicine. This medicine helps relax the muscles around the airway. It works quickly and should be taken when asthma symptoms occur. Sometimes your doctor will recommend taking the medicine before gym class, activity or exercise.

How are asthma medicines given?

asthma airway

Most asthma medicines need to get into the lungs to work. There are several ways to get asthma medicine to the lungs:

  1. Metered Dose Inhaler (inhaler or pump)
  2. Dry Powdered Inhaler
  3. Nebulizer
  4. Liquids or pills taken by mouth

Special tools or devices are used to help get asthma medicine into the lungs.

  • Spacers are used with metered dose inhalers. It helps slow down the speed of the medicine so it can get into the lungs and not to other parts of the body.
  • Nebulizers turn liquid medicine into a mist that can be breathed into the lungs.

What is an asthma management plan?

Airway with bands of tight muscles causing swelling and mucus in the airway

An asthma management plan is a special plan the health care team will make with you. This plan tells you what to do when your breathing is good and what to do when asthma flares up or acts up.

You are a very important part of the healthcare team. Together with the help of the team, asthma can be controlled.

Together with the help of the team, asthma can be controlled.

How does asthma affect the lungs?

Airway showing constriction and poor air flow

The lungs are made up of many tiny tubes. These tubes are called bronchioles. The bronchioles carry air in and out of the lungs. In a normal airway, air moves freely through the bronchioles and breathing is easy.

When asthma is not under good control, three things change in the airways that make it hard to breathe:

  • The airways become swollen. The walls thicken and make the airways smaller.
  • The airways make more mucous. Mucous is a thick liquid that your body makes. Mucous normally protects the nose, throat, and airways. When you have asthma, your body makes too much mucous. This mucous can plug the airways.
  • Muscles around the airways squeeze tight. Your airways have muscles around them that are usually loose. When you have asthma, these muscles can tighten.

These three things all make the airways smaller. When the airways get smaller it is hard to get air in and out. This can cause wheezing, coughing and trouble breathing.

Signs and symptoms of asthma:

Person lying in bed with ghosted elephant standing on chest

When asthma is not well-controlled, symptoms may include:


  • An asthma cough is usually dry and hard to stop. The cough is not just from a cold. Asthma coughs often happen at night or after running or playing hard. The cough does not go away.
  • The cough is caused by the muscles squeezing around the airways.


  • Wheezing is a high-pitched sound.
  • Wheezing is caused when your body has to push hard to get the air out of the lungs.

Chest tightness

  • People with asthma often feel like their chest is tight or heavy when their asthma is not under good control. People feel that they can’t get a good breath in because their chest is too tight. This may also feel like an elephant standing on your chest.
  • Chest tightness is caused by the swelling in the airway and the muscles squeezing.

Trouble being active

  • Regular daily activities like exercising, playing, sports or even walking up stairs can be hard to do. Children will often have to stop playing because it is hard to breathe.
  • Decreased activity is caused by not being able to breathe easily.
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