Family Medicine North  

Asthma is a chronic (long-term) disease that makes breathing difficult. At its worst, asthma can be fatal. For example, in 2003, asthma killed 287 Canadians. Asthma can't be cured, but it can be managed. With proper treatment, people with asthma can lead normal, active lives.

If you have asthma, your airways (breathing passages) are extra sensitive, and when you are around certain "triggers," your extra-sensitive airways can:

  • Become red, swollen, and inflamed, filling up with mucus. The swelling and mucus make your airways narrower, so it's harder for the air to pass through.
  • Become "twitchy" and go into spasm as the muscles around your airways squeeze together and tighten. This makes your airways narrower, again leaving less room for the air to pass through. The more red and swollen your airways are, the more twitchy they become.

What sets off your asthma symptoms?
Many different things can set off your asthma symptoms. Each person with asthma has her own set of asthma inducers and asthma triggers.

  • Asthma inducers: If you breathe in something you're allergic to—for example, dust or pollen—or if you have a viral infection, a cold, or the flu, your airways can become inflamed.
  • Asthma triggers: If you breathe in an asthma trigger like cold air or smoke, or if you exercise, the muscles around your airways can go into spasm and squeeze together tightly.

It's important for every person with asthma to know what their triggers and inducers are, so they can avoid them.

Risk factors:
Doctors know that there are some things that make a person more likely to get asthma:

  • Family history: if people in your family have allergic diseases like asthma, hay fever (allergic rhinitis), or eczema, there is a higher chance you will have asthma.
  • Air pollution indoors and out: some research shows that people who live near major highways and other polluted places are more likely to get asthma. Also, kids who grow up in a home with mold or dust may be more likely to get asthma.
  • Work-related asthma (occupational exposure): People who work in certain types of jobs can get asthma from things they work with. For example:
    • Laboratory workers can get asthma from lab animals: rats, mice, guinea-pigs
    • Spray painters can get asthma from isocyanates
    • Grain handlers can get asthma from grain dust
    • Crab processors can get asthma from crab dust
  • Second-hand smoke: Kids whose mothers smoked while pregnant, or who grow up in house with smokers, are more likely to get asthma.


1. Take control
Work with your doctor to get your asthma under control because for most people with asthma, it's possible to lead a healthy and active life. If you have asthma attacks or feel your asthma symptoms several times per week, your asthma is probably not as controlled as it could be. See your doctor, and ask for help to achieve better asthma control.

Signs of good asthma control:

  • You have daytime symptoms less than four times per week
  • You don't miss school or work because of asthma symptoms
  • Your physical activity is not limited by asthma
  • Nighttime symptoms disturb your sleep less than once per week
  • You have not had to take your asthma rescue medicine (blue inhaler) more than three times a week, except before exercising.

Signs of poor asthma control:

  • You wake up at night because of coughing, wheezing or feeling short of breath more than one time per week
  • Your rescue inhaler (blue puffer) doesn't work quickly or completely to remove your asthma symptoms
  • You are using your rescue medication more than three times a week (except during exercise)
  • Your asthma symptoms are stopping you from doing regular activities like exercise

If you have any one of these signs, see your doctor. Follow your doctor's advice as written in your asthma action plan.

If you don't have an asthma action plan, print one out and ask your doctor to help you complete it. Your doctor can explain what you should do if you are running into problems with your asthma. You can also ask a Certified Asthma Educator to explain how to use your asthma action plan to manage your asthma symptoms.

2. Follow your written asthma action plan
To take the guesswork out of managing your asthma, use an asthma action plan. Studies show that people who use their asthma action plan have better asthma control.

Your asthma action plan tells you:

  • What symptoms you should watch for
  • What your symptoms mean
  • How to adjust your medication according to your symptoms
  • When to call the doctor or 911

Ask your doctor to fill out an asthma action plan for you. Make sure you understand what the plan says. If you have any questions, ask your doctor. You can also discuss your action plan with a Certified Asthma Educator, a healthcare professional with special training in asthma management.

3. Avoid your asthma triggers
The best way to control you asthma is to make sure you stay away from triggers. Asthma triggers are things that make your asthma symptoms worse by irritating your airways. Asthma triggers make the muscles around your airways squeeze tightly.

Asthma triggers cause symptoms that:

  • Usually come on suddenly
  • May not last very long
  • May be easy to relieve with a blue rescue inhaler

Each person will have his own set of asthma triggers. Some common asthma triggers are fumes, smoke, and exercise.

Other asthma triggers
Most people's triggers are inhaled (breathed in), but asthma symptoms may also be triggered by things you eat, drink, or swallow, like medications, for example:

  • Sulphites (used to preserve some food, like dried fruit and red wine)
  • MSG (a flavor enhancer for some food)
  • Aspirin (never let a child or teen take aspirin)

Some people with asthma also have food allergies. People with any allergy that causes anaphylactic shock should keep their Epipen with them at all times.

4. Avoid your asthma inducers
Asthma inducers make your airways swollen, red, and filled with mucus. If you avoid asthma inducers, such as viral infections and allergies, you'll have fewer asthma symptoms.

Asthma inducers cause symptoms that:

  • May come on slowly
  • May take a while to treat
  • Can be treated with long-term asthma medicines

It may be hard to figure out which triggers or inducers give you asthma symptoms. It helps if you pay attention to when your asthma gets worse. Is it when the air is cold? When you are near your neighbor’s cat? Paying attention to your symptoms will give you clues about your triggers and inducers.

You can find out what your allergies are by getting allergy tests, including a skin prick allergy test.

Keep in mind, asthma triggers and inducers can work in combination. For example, if your airways are already swollen because you have a chest infection, and then you go into a smoky room, your airways are less able that usual to cope with the smoke.

There's no need to get rid of every possible asthma trigger and inducer, just the ones that set off YOUR asthma. It's expensive and time-consuming to eliminate all possible triggers and inducers from your surroundings. Sometimes people spend a lot of money fixing things that might be triggers for other people but aren't triggers for them. In the end, they may still be exposed to the things that trigger their asthma. For example, they may give away the family dog when it's really pollen that triggers their asthma symptoms. So again, you don't have to get rid of every possible asthma trigger and inducer—just the ones that bother you.

5. Take your asthma medications as prescribed
To keep your asthma well-controlled and to prevent asthma attacks, it's very important to take your asthma medications exactly as prescribed by your doctor. Taking your medication regularly means you can avoid asthma emergencies.

Many people think they can skip their medications when they don't feel sick, unfortunately that's not true. Asthma is a chronic disease, which means you have it all the time, even when you don't feel symptoms. That's why taking your medication as prescribed is so important.

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