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Asthma Facts and FAQs

Asthma is a chronic disease that can make it hard to breathe for your lungs. Asthma can’t be cured, but with proper treatment, people with asthma can lead normal, active lives. If you have asthma, your airways (breathing passages) are very sensitive. Certain things can make your airways become:

  • Swollen and filled with mucus – the swelling and mucus makes your airways narrower, so it is hard for air to pass through
  • Small and tight – your airways might also become twitchy and squeeze together and tighten. This makes your airways narrower and hard for air to pass through.

Types of asthma

Although asthma is often just called “asthma”, you may sometimes hear other terms used. Here are some of the more common terms you may hear from your health-care provider. It’s time to learn the facts about asthma!

Allergic asthma: When your asthma is affected by allergens such as pets, pollen, mould and dust mites, it is called allergic asthma.

Occupational asthma: When your asthma is caused by an exposure in the workplace, it is called occupational asthma. If you already have asthma but something in the workplace triggers your symptoms, it is called work-exacerbated asthma or work-aggravated asthma.

Exercise-induced asthma (exercise-induced bronchoconstriction): When your asthma symptoms are triggered by physical activity, it is sometimes called exercise-induced asthma or exercise-induced bronchoconstriction.

Nocturnal asthma (nighttime asthma): When you mainly get symptoms in the night and into the early morning, it is called nocturnal asthma (nighttime asthma).

Adult-onset asthma: If your asthma is first diagnosed when you are an adult, it is called adult-onset asthma.

Cough-variant asthma: When the main asthma symptom you experience is a cough, your health-care provider may refer to it as cough-variant asthma.

Asthma FAQs

How did I get asthma?

Asthma and allergies often run in families and may be passed on in genes. That means you have a higher chance of having asthma and allergies if one or both of your parents has them. However, many people have asthma when nobody else in the family does.

How does my doctor know if I have asthma?

To find out if you have asthma, your doctor will ask you how you’ve been feeling and whether you have any regular coughing or difficulty breathing. Your doctor will also listen to your breathing with a stethoscope. You might be asked to take a breathing test called spirometry, which will help with the asthma diagnosis. Your doctor will ask you and your parents if asthma or allergies run in your family and may prescribe asthma medicines to see if you get better with them. If you do get better after a few weeks of taking these medicines, then you likely have asthma. If you had eczema or food allergies as a child, then there’s a higher chance that you will also have asthma.

Why does asthma make it hard for me to breathe sometimes?

Asthma affects the airways (air tubes) inside your lungs. These airways bring oxygen to the rest of your body. If your asthma is getting out of control, these airways can get narrower, making it harder to get air in and out of your lungs. Keep your asthma under control, and your airways will be clear and open, allowing you to breathe easily.

Will I ever outgrow my asthma?

For some people, asthma goes away and never comes back. For others, asthma goes away during childhood or the teen years, only to come back later in adulthood. Unfortunately, some people will always have asthma. Keep your asthma under control and you’ll still be able to what anyone else does, even if asthma stays with you forever.

Why do we use inhalers for asthma?

You take most medicines in pill form, so it might seem strange to take asthma medicine with an inhaler. Asthma medicine often comes in an inhaler because it directs the medicine quickly to where it is needed – your lungs – so you’ll need less medicine as a result.

What’s the best medicine for asthma?

The best asthma medicine varies from person to person, so your doctor will try to find the medicine or combination of medicines that works for you. If you have regular asthma symptoms, your doctor will probably start with a daily inhaled steroid medicine, since these are usually effective when taken properly. Your doctor will also prescribe a reliever inhaler (usually blue), for when you are having problems breathing or for before exercise.

Are my asthma medicines safe for me?

Asthma medicines are generally very safe. Your doctor will try to find the lowest amount of medicine that keeps your asthma under control. Keeping your lungs healthy and being able to exercise normally is important. Inhaled steroids are the most common medicines for treating asthma long-term. Although people have many misconceptions about inhaled steroids, these medicines have great benefits, are generally safe in prescribed doses, and tend to be the most effective asthma medicine.

How do I know if my asthma inhaler is empty?

If you have a pressurized MDI (metered dose inhaler), the kind that sprays the asthma medicine out, then you can shake the inhaler near your ear to listen and feel for the liquid swishing around. Also, if you see that the puff of mist coming out of your inhaler is not as full as before, then it’s probably time to get a new asthma inhaler. You can also try counting the number of doses you use. This is easier if you take the same number of puffs every day. It’s much harder with inhalers that you only use once in a while. Some Turbuhalers have a counter on them. If your Turbuhaler doesn’t have a counter, a red mark will appear in the window on the side of the device when there are about 20 doses left. If you use a Diskus, it has a built-in counter.

If I’m feeling great, why do I need to keep taking my asthma medicines?

Some asthma medicines only work if you take them every day. These are called “controller” medicines. They keep your lungs healthy, so if you stop taking them, your asthma can slowly start getting out of control, making it hard to breathe.

Do I need to stay away from sports and exercise if I have asthma?

Keep your asthma under control and you should be able to play sports and exercise just like everyone else. Doctors often recommend that people with asthma take their reliever inhaler (usually blue) before playing sports. A good warm-up before and a cool-down after exercising or playing sports also helps. If you do get short of breath during exercise, stop right away and take your asthma reliever inhaler. Only start again if your breathing is back to normal. If your asthma is not under control, you should not start any exercise.

Every winter I get colds that make my asthma worse. How do I stop getting colds?

It’s probably impossible to stop getting colds altogether, but here are a few things that can help:

  • Wash your hands more (colds get passed from your hands to your mouth, nose or eyes).
  • Try to stay away from people who have colds (especially in the first few days of a cold).
  • Eat healthy foods and sleep enough.
  • It’s also a good idea to get a flu shot every fall, to reduce the chances of getting the flu.

I am allergic to pollen. I know pollen comes from trees and plants, but what is it?

Pollen is a fine powder that comes from trees and plants. Trees and plants send pollen into the air to reproduce, and the pollen is carried by the wind. Unfortunately this means pollen can be inhaled into noses and lungs, triggering an allergic reaction.

Are there any dogs or cats that are okay for people who have asthma?

There are no non-allergenic dogs or cats. If you are allergic to pets, you shouldn’t have any in your home. Some people believe certain dogs and cats don’t cause allergies because they don’t shed hair. However, it’s not the hair that you are allergic to, it’s the dander (tiny skin particles) or saliva. There is no proof that any dog or cat is safe for people with asthma. If removing your pet from the home is not an option, have your pet washed and groomed regularly and keep it out of your bedroom and off the furniture.

Are there any foods that cause asthma symptoms?

Some people need to avoid certain foods that cause asthma symptoms and other allergic reactions. Foods don’t usually make asthma worse, but if you think it is a trigger, ask your doctor for advice.

Where are the best places to live with asthma?

Some people with asthma do benefit from moving to a different climate. For example, a person whose main asthma trigger is dust mites may improve if they move to a high-altitude area such as the Swiss Alps, the Rocky Mountains, or other low-humidity areas like the prairies. Or an outdoor worker with no allergies whose asthma symptoms are triggered mainly by cold air may do better in a warmer climate.

But people with asthma are usually sensitive to many asthma triggers, and the new climate may bring new triggers. For example, a warmer climate may have more air pollution and higher humidity.
To avoid replacing one asthma trigger with a different one when you move, it’s a good idea to spend a trial period of several weeks to months in the new location. Don’t move until you are sure there’s a real improvement in your asthma symptoms.

Consider also that your improvement might be due to leaving a pet at home, being away from the workplace trigger, or having less stress on holiday – nothing to do with climate at all!

Can I live without my asthma medications?

Asthma can improve when an offending asthma allergen and/or asthma trigger has been identified and removed from the home or workplace. Sometimes however, asthma gets better for no apparent reason; children, for example, often outgrow their asthma – although it may return in adulthood. Given this, the amount of asthma medication needed for proper asthma control will change over time. However, asthma medication doses should only be adjusted by your doctor.

If you have had no asthma symptoms for a while, your doctor may advise you to reduce the dose of your asthma controller to see if you still have good asthma control. Under your doctor’s supervision, you may even be able to slowly taper off your asthma medications without recurrence of asthma symptoms. However, you should still carry an asthma reliever inhaler, just in case.

How will pregnancy affect my asthma?

For one-third of women, pregnancy has no affect on asthma symptoms; for another third, asthma symptoms improve; and for the remainder they worsen. Fortunately, whatever changes pregnancy brings to asthma can be usually managed with minor adjustments to medications.

If you are pregnant do not stop your asthma medications – poorly controlled asthma can put the baby at risk with low oxygen levels in the blood. If you are pregnant or planning a pregnancy, consult your doctor.

Once the baby is born, the level of severity of your asthma will probably return to what it was. If you’re breastfeeding, standard asthma medications appear to be safe. Once again, contact your doctor if you have any questions or concerns.

I have asthma, so will my child have asthma?

Asthma is sometimes due to heredity; that is, people may inherit the tendency to develop allergies and “twitchy”, or hyper responsive airways. However, most children whose parents have asthma do not develop asthma.

Most important in minimizing your child’s chances of developing asthma are environmental controls, including: not smoking (especially during pregnancy); not allowing smoking in the house when children are small; and avoiding allergens, such as pets and house dust mites.

Are there any asthma breathing exercises that can help my asthma control?

Although there may be many claims about asthma breathing exercises reducing asthma symptoms, or even curing asthma, these claims have not been backed up with adequate evidence.
Exercise in general is great for the health of the lungs and heart. However there are no asthma breathing exercises that have been shown with proper studies to be of benefit for people with asthma.

I have more questions about asthma. Where can I get answers?

There is a lot to learn when you’re diagnosed with asthma. You’ll have to learn what asthma is, how it is treated, and how to use your asthma inhalers. So ask questions each time you visit your doctor or pharmacist. You can also call The Lung Association’s toll-free Lung Health Information Line at 1-888-344-LUNG (5864).