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Asthma

A girl using an asthma inhaler.

Asthma is a lung condition that causes a person’s airways (also known as breathing tubes) to become sensitive. Asthma can make it hard for you to breathe, make your chest hurt, and make you cough. If you have asthma, you actually may feel fine sometimes, but that doesn’t mean the asthma has gone away. That’s why it’s smart to get — and stick with — an asthma treatment plan from your doctor.

Having asthma can be scary, and you may feel annoyed that you have to deal with it. But asthma doesn’t have to stop you from doing what you want. With practice, you can get really good at taking care of yourself. Olympic gold medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee was Sports Illustrated’s pick for the Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th century, and she has asthma. Want to see someone else who is strong enough and smart enough to handle asthma? Well, just look in the mirror!

Read about the topics below to learn how to prevent problems and what to do when they come up.

Want the inside story on asthma? You can watch a video about airways, hear what wheezing sounds like, and more. You also can read about a girl who stays safe with asthma on the soccer field.

What happens in the doctor’s office? arrow top

If you think you may have asthma — or if you think your asthma is getting worse — you should see your doctor. Asthma usually can be controlled really well. Not treating it, though, can be very dangerous. Take a quick quiz to see if asthma may be causing you problems.

During your appointment, the doctor will ask questions about your health and do a physical exam. He or she also may give you some tests, like a spirometer (say: speye-ROM-uh-tuhr) test. All you have to do is take a deep breath and blow long and hard into a tube, like blowing up a balloon.

At the end of the visit, your doctor probably will go over a treatment plan with you. This may include ways to keep track of how well your lungs are working and steps to avoid problems. Your doctor also may give you an asthma action plan that tells you what to do in three basic situations: when you’re feeling fine, when you’re having some symptoms, or when you’re having a full-blown flare-up.

Understanding asthma flare-ups arrow top

If you have asthma, you may feel fine a lot of the time. But then something may come along to irritate those sensitive lungs of yours — maybe cigarette smoke or a cold. This “trigger” sets off an asthma flare-up, also known as an attack or episode. That means the walls of your airways get narrower than usual and may start making extra mucus. In addition, the muscles nearby may start to squeeze. No wonder it gets hard to breathe!

If you’re having a flare-up you may:

  • Wheeze, which means you make a whistling or squeaky sound when you breathe
  • Feel breathless
  • Have a tight feeling in your chest
  • Cough
  • Wake up more at night

Flare-ups can differ in how serious they are and how long they last. Flare-ups have one thing in common, though: It’s really important to treat them as soon as you feel them coming on.

Preventing flare-ups arrow top

The best way to handle flare-ups is to try to prevent them in the first place. Here are some tips for doing that:

  • Avoid things that can irritate your airways. This can include hairspray, perfume, and household cleaners. It definitely can include cigarette smoke, so if you smoke, try to quit, and don’t let anyone smoke near you.
  • Wash your hands often to avoid colds and flu. Get a flu shot, and ask your doctor if you need a shot for pneumonia (say: noo-MOH-nee-uh), too.
  • Try to have fewer things around that cause allergies. Pets, mold, dust, and other allergens can start a flare-up, so make sure your house is clean. Check out some ideas for dealing with household triggers.
  • Stay indoors on high-pollution days. Poor air quality can cause problems, especially if you’re being active.
  • Talk to your doctor about exercise. For some people, activities that make them breathe hard can start a flare-up. That doesn’t mean you should hang up your running shoes, though. In fact, exercise may strengthen your lungs. Discuss which activities are right for you.
  • Keep cold air out. Cold air can irritate your lungs, so try wrapping a scarf around your nose.
  • Learn what your personal triggers are. Keep a diary where you record any time you have a symptom, how bad it was, and what you were doing when you got it. It’s also a good idea to share this information with your doctor during regular appointments. That way, you can discuss whether anything in your treatment plan needs to change. 

Dealing with flare-ups arrow top

It’s a good idea to know how to deal with a flare-up while it’s still mild. One way to do that is learn your early warning signs. Everybody is different. Maybe your chest starts to hurt or your throat itches.

Another good way to check how your lungs are doing is to use a peak flow meter. You blow into the meter to see how much air your lungs can push out. Your asthma action plan should tell you what to do based on the number you get.

To stay safe, it’s very important to have a plan for how to deal with a flare-up. Make sure your doctor tells you what to do — and make sure you do it, no matter where you are.

Stay safe in school

If you have asthma, your teachers, coaches, and school nurse can be a huge help. The best bet is for them to have a written plan with everything they need to know. And tell your friends how to help, too. Don’t be shy. You’re probably not the only one around with asthma. Almost 1 out of 10 kids has it these days!

Medications arrow top

Most kids with asthma find that medicine really helps.

  • You may need to take a rescue medication, which works fast, to help during a flare-up. That may be all you need. Keep in mind, though, that if you use your rescue medication more and more, you should talk to your doctor about whether your treatment plan should change.
  • Some people also take a controller medication every day. These medications can help avoid flare-ups from happening in the first place. They don’t help if you’re in the middle of an attack, though.
  • You may also need to take allergy medication or shots if it turns out that allergies are triggering your asthma.

Your doctor may suggest that you take some extra medicine when you’re going to face one of your triggers, like exercising outdoors or being around pets. And make sure to have your rescue medication with you all the time.

Lots of asthma medications are taken through an inhaler. It’s basically a small plastic container that you put in your mouth and breathe the medicine through. You also may need a tube called a spacer that helps make sure the medicine gets where it needs to go.

Getting help right away arrow top

You never want to take chances with asthma. Signs you need help right away include:

  • Breathing very slowly or feeling like you can’t breathe
  • Having trouble walking or talking because you're out of breath
  • Lips or fingernails turning blue or gray
  • Hunching over
  • Not getting enough help from your rescue medication

If you think you need help, call 9-1-1. It’s the safest way to get to the hospital fast.

Asthma and your feelings arrow top

Everybody has up and down moods. But if you find that you worry or feel sad a lot because of your asthma, you can get help. Talk to friends, parents, and caring adults. You also could join a support group for kids with asthma or get help from your school counselor.

 

Content last reviewed February 16, 2011
Page last updated October 31, 2013

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Women's Health.

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