Treat Your Asthma and Breathe Easier

Asthma is a chronic condition, but with the right treatment plan and management strategies, you can live a healthy, active life.

Treat Your Asthma and Breathe Easier

Medically reviewed in December 2020

Asthma is a chronic lung condition in which the airways are overly sensitive to certain triggers, leading to inflammation and narrowing of your air passages and making it hard to breathe. When symptoms like wheezing, chest tightness and coughing strike, it’s known as an asthma attack. Some cases of asthma are relatively minor, while others can be quite severe and lead to a life-threatening emergency.

Everyone’s asthma is different. Some patients may experience a collection of classic symptoms—wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath—while others may experience only one or a few. It’s important that any patient work closely with their doctor on a management plan tailored to the specifics of their condition.

There’s no cure for asthma, but a combination of lifestyle modifications and treatments can help you gain control of your condition and live a normal, active life.

Lifestyle tweaks
When developing an asthma management plan, your doctor will usually advise that you make certain lifestyle adjustments to help keep your symptoms at bay.

  • Reduce exposure to indoor allergens: Mold, dust, pet dander and pests like cockroaches can trigger asthma symptoms. Take steps to reduce these allergens in your home: Use allergen-proof covers on your mattress and pillows, run a dehumidifier to help prevent mold and dust mites and clean your home regularly with fragrance-free products.
  • Avoid outdoor allergens: If your symptoms worsen with exposure to pollen, extreme temperatures or pollution, be sure to avoid these triggers as much as possible. It can help to check pollen levels along with the air quality index before heading outdoors and stay inside when possible on particularly bad days.
  • Quit smoking: If you smoke, take steps to quit, as cigarette smoke can worsen asthma. It’s equally important to avoid secondhand smoke as well as smoke from fireplaces or outdoor fires.
  • Develop an exercise plan with your doctor: Staying active is an important part of your asthma management plan, but for some, exercise can exacerbate symptoms. Talk to your healthcare provider about whether taking quick-relief asthma medication before you work out may help prevent exercise-induced asthma.
  • Practice self-care: Strong emotions—from laughing and crying to feeling stressed or angry—can trigger asthma symptoms. Take steps to manage stress and if asthma is often triggered by your emotions, account for that in your asthma action plan.
  • Get your shots: It’s important to get an annual flu vaccine and to stay on top of pneumonia vaccinations to help prevent respiratory infections, which can make your asthma worse. If specific allergens make your asthma worse, getting allergy shots may also help you control symptoms.
  • Prevent infection: Wash your hands regularly and try to avoid exposure to others who are sick.
  • Monitor other health conditions: Certain conditions, like acid reflux or even food allergies, can impact your asthma. Medications you may be taking—such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for pain or beta-blockers for heart disease—can trigger asthma symptoms. Keep your doctor informed of your other medications and conditions when crafting your asthma control strategy.
  • Track your asthma: Keep a log of your symptoms and peak flow readings to measure how well your lungs are functioning and what triggers may be exacerbating your symptoms. Your doctor can use the log to recommend adjustments to your asthma management plan as needed.

Inhaled asthma medications
The specifics of your condition are unique to you, so it’s important to work closely with your doctor on a treatment plan that suits your needs. Many treatments are inhaled, which allow you to breathe medicine directly into your lungs. There are two main types of inhaled medications:

  • Quick-relief medications: These are typically taken to provide fast relief when asthma symptoms strike. Some of the most commonly prescribed quick-relief medications are short-acting beta agonists, anticholinergics or a combination of the two. Beta agonists work by relaxing tightened muscles around the airways, which opens them up so air can flow more easily again. Anticholinergics prevent airway muscles from contracting while helping to clear mucus from the lungs. If you need to use these medications more than two days each week, you may need to work with your doctor to adjust your treatment plan for better asthma control.
  • Long-term control medications: These are taken on an ongoing basis—even when you’re not experiencing symptoms—to help prevent future asthma attacks. They typically provide relief lasting for 12 to 24 hours. Unlike quick-relief medications, long-term control medications help reduce inflammation and swelling, which is key to preventing asthma symptoms. Inhaled corticosteroids are a commonly prescribed long-term control medication, as well as a combination of inhaled corticosteroids and long-acting beta agonists. Cromolyn sodium is yet another option.

Regardless of which type of inhaled medication you may take, it’s important to make sure you understand how to administer it correctly, since not all inhalers and nebulizers are used the same way. If they’re not used properly, you may not be getting the right dosage of medication. Your doctor can demonstrate the correct way to use your treatment device and may recommend using a spacer with your inhaler to improve the amount of medicine delivered to your lungs. Be sure to review how to use each of your prescribed medications at every doctor visit.

Oral asthma treatment
Beyond inhaled medications, there are treatment options that come in pill or liquid form and are taken to help reduce swelling in the airways and relax smooth muscles to help you breathe better. These include:

  • Leukotriene modifiers
  • Theophylline
  • Oral corticosteroids (typically only prescribed for more severe cases)

Severe asthma treatment
If traditional asthma treatments aren’t effective at controlling your symptoms, you may have a more severe type of asthma that requires a more comprehensive therapy plan. Newer treatment options for severe asthma include:

  • Biologics, which are administered as injections or infusions to target a particular cell or protein in the body to help prevent inflammation in the airways
  • Bronchial thermoplasty, a series of procedures that use heat to reduce excess smooth muscle in the airways

Regardless of which type of treatment your doctor prescribes, it’s important to ask about any side effects to be aware of.

Your asthma action plan
An asthma action plan is an important part of your overall asthma treatment. It is essentially a personalized worksheet that you fill out with your doctor to outline what steps you should take to control your condition. Your action plan should include:

  • A place to track peak flow readings
  • Which triggers to avoid
  • Which symptoms may signal worsening asthma
  • When/how to take medications properly
  • When to seek emergency help (along with a list of emergency contacts)

You can find examples of asthma action plan worksheets to fill out with your doctor from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology or the American Lung Association.

It’s essential to make sure your loved ones and any potential care providers have a copy of your asthma action plan so they know what steps to take in the event of an asthma attack.

Maintaining asthma control
Because asthma is a chronic condition, you have to take steps to manage it throughout your life. Following your treatment regimen and making any necessary lifestyle adjustments over the long-term can help you:

  • Reduce symptoms and the need for quick-relief inhalers
  • Preserve lung function
  • Maintain an exercise program without breathing difficulty
  • Get a good night’s sleep without interruption from symptoms
  • Prevent future asthma attacks

An essential part of keeping asthma under control is scheduling regular checkups with your doctor. Asthma can change over time, especially as you experience changes to your environment at home, work or school. As a result, you and your doctor may need to adjust your asthma treatment plan.

The good news is that if your asthma is well-controlled over time, you may be able to work with your doctor to decrease the amount of medication you take.

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