Understanding Asthma

Understanding asthma can be a challenge.


Asthma is a common lung disease in the United States, affecting more than 18 million adults and nearly 6.2 million children. The exact causes of asthma are unknown and still being explored by researchers. Many factors contribute to someone developing asthma, including genetics, environmental factors, infections during infancy and exposure to substances that trigger allergies.

Asthma symptoms can vary from mild to severe. They may be an occasional inconvenience or have a life-threatening impact that interferes with daily activities. Asthma can be well-managed with trigger avoidance and proper medication use.


Asthma is a chronic lung disease affecting your airways, the tubes that carry air to and from your lungs. Asthma makes breathing difficult in one or both of the following ways:

Bronchoconstriction (or squeezing) of the airways
During bronchoconstriction, muscles outside the airways tighten, causing less air to pass through and making it difficult to breathe.

Inflammation (or swelling) of the airways
When the lining of the airways becomes swollen or inflamed, mucus forms, blocking airways and making it hard to breathe. Because swelling can occur every day and mucus can build up gradually over time, you do not always feel symptoms from inflammation.

Common asthma symptoms include wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath and chest tightness. These and other symptoms vary from person to person. If you have any of these symptoms, it’s important to consult with your health care provider.

Asthma flare-ups are sometimes called asthma episodes or asthma attacks. Asthma flare-ups may prevent a person from being able to do what he or she normally does each day, like go to work or school. Asthma is the leading cause of school absences due to chronic illness, accounting for an estimated 13.8 million missed school days each year.

Diagnosing Asthma
An asthma diagnosis often requires a thorough medical history and breathing tests. Spirometry is a breathing test that measures how much oxygen you inhale, how much you exhale and how quickly you exhale.


Scientific discoveries have led to improved treatments, but there is currently no cure for this lifelong disease. Fortunately, most asthma can be managed and controlled with proper medication and education.


One of the best ways to manage asthma is to use an asthma action plan, developed with your health care provider. An asthma action plan identifies your asthma triggers, warning signs, and medications to help you better manage your asthma.

Two of the most important ways of managing your asthma are trigger avoidance and proper medication use. Education about asthma management is also important.

RHA offers two school and community-based asthma education programs. Fight Asthma Now© is an asthma self-management curriculum delivered to youth and teens in school settings. RHA’s asthma educators use engaging and active lesson plans to give youth and teens the tools and knowledge they need to identify and avoid triggers, manage asthma episodes and control asthma on a long-term basis. RHA provides a free Monaghan Z Stat Anti-Static Valved Holding Chamber courtesy of Monaghan Medical Corporation to each Fight Asthma Now© participant. RHA also offers Asthma Management, a one-hour program for caregivers, to schools and in community settings.

Each adult in a child’s life needs information on how to:

  • Remove triggers from a home, school or childcare center
  • Prevent asthma episodes
  • Help deliver asthma medicines
  • Handle asthma emergencies

For more information, visit the Asthma section of our Library.