Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2000;61(8):2433-2434

See related article on asthma.

What is asthma?

Asthma is a disease of the airways in the lungs. You can get asthma at any age. People can have asthma for many years. Often, more than one person in a family has asthma.

What happens during an asthma attack?

When asthma is under control, the airways are clear and air flows easily in and out. But when you have an asthma attack, less air can get in and out of the lungs.

You'll cough and wheeze. Your chest feels tight. The following may occur during an asthma attack:

  • The sides of the airways swell up.

  • The airways get squeezed.

  • The airways make mucus.

Some asthma attacks are mild. Some asthma attacks can get very serious.

People with asthma may wake up at night because of coughing or trouble breathing.

What starts an asthma attack?

Being exposed to any of the following may trigger an asthma attack:

  • Animals with fur

  • Cigarette smoke

  • Other types of smoke

  • Dust in beds and pillows

  • Dust from sweeping

  • Strong smells and sprays

  • Pollen from trees and flowers

  • Changes in weather

  • Colds

  • Cockroaches

  • Running, playing sports and working hard

Can asthma be cured?

Although asthma has no cure, people with asthma can have normal, active lives when they learn to control their asthma. They can sleep well at night. They can work, play and go to school.

What can be done to help control asthma?

Your doctor may recommend the regular use of medications. It is also important to take the following precautions in the room where the person with asthma sleeps:

  • Take out rugs and carpets because they can get dusty and moldy.

  • Take out soft chairs, cushions and extra pillows because they collect dust.

  • Don't let animals on the bed or in the bedroom.

  • Don't allow smoking or strong smells in the bedroom.

  • Put special dust-proof covers with zippers on the mattress and pillow.

  • Don't use a pillow or a mattress made of straw or feathers.

  • Wash sheets and blankets weekly in very hot water. Even curtains and blinds should be washed every now and then to remove dust.

  • Open windows wide when it's hot or stuffy, when there is smoke from cooking or when there are strong smells.

  • If you heat with wood or kerosene, keep a window open a little to get rid of fumes.

Is there any way to avoid getting asthma?

When you know there is asthma in the family, you may be able to keep your baby from getting asthma. It is important to take these steps:

  • When you are pregnant, don't smoke.

  • Keep tobacco smoke away from the baby and out of your home.

  • Put a special dust-proof cover on the baby's mattress, unless the mattress is plastic covered.

  • Keep cats and other animals with fur out of your home.

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