Understanding Asthma

Understanding asthma can be challenging.  Respiratory Health Association's community programs aim to educate people living with asthma about this chronic disease so that children and adults can manage their asthma on a daily basis and in emergency situations. 

Be sure to visit our Asthma Library for information and resources about asthma medications, equipment, inhaler laws, and more. 

What is asthma?
Asthma is a chronic lung disease affecting the airways that carry air to and from the lungs. More than 16 million adults and nearly 7 million children in the U.S. have the disease.  When asthma flares up it is called an asthma episode or sometimes an asthma attack. Asthma episodes result in approximately 423,000 hospitalizations per year in Illinois.

One or both of two things occur during an asthma episode:

  • Constriction (or squeezing) of the airways: Muscles outside the airways tighten, causing less air to pass through and making it difficult to breathe.
  • Inflammation (or swelling) of the airways: The lining of the airways becomes swollen or inflamed. Inflammation causes mucus to form, blocking airways and making it hard to breathe. Since inflammation can occur every day and since mucus builds up gradually over time, asthma patients do not always feel symptoms from the inflammation.


How can you tell when you're having an asthma episode?
Although asthma symptoms vary for each person, some of the common symptoms are:

  • Wheezing
  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness


What causes an asthma episode?
An asthma episode can occur when a person with asthma is exposed to an asthma trigger. The two main types of triggers are irritants and allergens. Irritants bother or irritate airways, while allergens cause an allergic reaction, such as watery eyes, sneezing or a runny nose. It is important for people to know what triggers their own asthma and how to avoid their triggers.

What are some common asthma triggers?
Asthma triggers
differ for each person. A few common triggers include:

  • cigarette smoke
  • animals with fur or feathers
  • dust
  • dust mites
  • cockroaches
  • mold
  • pollen

How is asthma treated?
Although there is no cure for asthma, it can be controlled with the proper medication and education. When asthma is controlled, asthma episodes are less likely to occur, and the episodes themselves can be less severe.

What does it mean to have your asthma under control?
Asthma is under control when it does not prevent normal activities and does not interfere with everyday life. When asthma is under control, a person should be able to: sleep through the night without symptoms; have few or no daytime symptoms; and exercise and do all activities without using a quick-relief medication or using it on a minimal basis

If asthma is not under control and interfering with daily life activities, you should make an appointment to see your healthcare provider.

The Asthma Control Test (ACT©) and Asthma Therapy Assessment Questionnaire (ATAQ©) are simple tools that can help determine if your asthma is under control. It is a good idea to take the results of these tests with you to your healthcare visits. We recommend completing these tests every three months to reevaluate your level of asthma control.