Fitness Facts: Asthma

Connie Colbert

By Connie Colbert
Director, Canyon Health and Wellness Clinic

Do you have a chronic cough that never seems to go away? Do you often feel short of breath after a long hike? Do you feel as if every time you get a cold it goes to your chest?

You could have asthma.   

What is asthma?

Asthma is a chronic condition that makes the lungs' airways swell and inflame. The muscles around the bronchial tubes in the lungs tighten, causing the airways to become sensitive and restricted. Thicker mucus also is produced, which contributes to the narrowing of the airways in the lungs.

Symptoms of asthma may include:

  • Coughing, especially at night
  • Wheezing
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Impaired breathing (short, quick or noisy)

The frequency and intensity of these symptoms may vary from person to person. When these symptoms are exacerbated, it is called an asthma attack or asthma flare.

What can trigger my asthma symptoms?

  • Allergens such as mold, pollen, animal dander, dust mites and cockroaches
  • Irritants such as:
  • Tobacco smoke
  • Scented products, such as perfumes
  • Pollution
  • Intense feelings, such as stress, laughter or crying because they can restrict airflow and impair normal breathing patterns
  • Additives found in food and wine, such as sulfites
  • Exercise sometimes can cause induced asthma; the symptoms are a cough and shortness of breath

For more information on triggers, see the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute

How do I know if I have asthma?

If you suspect that you or someone in your care has asthma, you should visit a clinician to get an accurate diagnosis. The clinician will do several tests to determine if you have asthma and also to make sure you are not mistaking asthma for something else.

You may be diagnosed with asthma if:

  • You have frequent periods of coughing, wheezing or shortness of breath
  • You get "chest colds" that take 10 or more days to recover
  • You have a family history of asthma or allergies

Asthma can range from mild to moderate to severe. For more information on diagnosis, see the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

How is asthma managed?

If you are diagnosed with asthma, you can do a lot to manage and control your symptoms.

There are two basic types of medications used to control asthma: short-term medications that provide quick relief during attacks, and long-term medications that control asthma in general. For more information on medications, see the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

You also can manage your asthma by avoiding your triggers.

  • Avoid allergens and irritants such as smoke and pets if you know they make your asthma worse.
  • Maintain a clean-living environment, with minimal dust and mold. Ask your roommate(s) to help, if applicable.
  • Monitor environmental changes and air quality in your area on a regular basis. You can use Enviroflash from AirNow.gov, a free online service to get air-quality updates for your location via email.
  • Beware of alcohol-medication interactions; drinking alcohol (for example wine) and taking medications (such as aspirin) can trigger asthma.
  • Be aware of the possibility of exercise-induced asthma
  • Be prepared for an asthma attack. Have medications, medical contacts and emergency information readily available.

For developing your own plan for managing asthma, see Asthma Action Plan from the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.

If you have not been formally diagnosed with asthma by a health care provider but have symptoms that are suspicious for asthma, call your primary care provider to discuss.

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