Asthma: Know Your Options


Asthma is a chronic lung disease that causes the airways to become inflamed and narrow. Symptoms of an asthma attack can include coughing, wheezing (a whistling sound when you breathe), chest tightness, and shortness of breath. There are many other conditions that can have the same symptoms, so it is important to check with your doctor to be sure of the diagnosis.

About 8.3 percent of Americans — nearly 27 million people — have asthma, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There’s no cure for asthma and, in most cases, we don’t know what causes it. However, we do know that people living with asthma can reduce the number and severity of their asthma attacks. Patients can better manage their asthma by working with their health care providers — including an allergist or pulmonologist (lung specialist) if needed — to develop an asthma action plan.

Not everyone with asthma has the same symptoms or can take the same medicine. Putting an action plan in place can help patients understand their asthma triggers and ensure they have the medications they need to reduce the number and severity of asthma attacks. The plan should also include information on how to take these medicines, when to take them, and what to do if symptoms get worse.

Recognize Your Asthma Triggers

An important component to any asthma action plan is identifying your asthma triggers, things that can make asthma worse. Triggers can be different for everyone. Knowing what your triggers are and learning how to avoid them can help you prevent an asthma attack. The most common triggers include:

  • Tobacco smoke
  • Dust mites
  • Air pollution
  • Cockroaches
  • Pet dander
  • Plant pollen
  • Mold
  • Infections
  • Exercise
  • Strong scents (such as perfumes)

Talk to your health care provider about what triggers your asthma, and when possible consider how can avoid them or prepare for them.

Treat Asthma With the Right Medication

Left untreated, asthma can cause long-term lung damage and life-threatening attacks that may require emergency care or hospitalization. Patients should work with their health care provider to discuss proper asthma treatment, which may include medications and how to safely take them. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved many prescription asthma treatments. Because asthma symptoms can vary from person to person, not every medicine is right for every patient.

There are two types of asthma medicines: quick-relief and long-term control. Quick-relief or rescue medicines control the symptoms of an asthma attack. One example is albuterol, which opens up the bronchial tubes in the lungs.

Long-term control medicines help you have fewer and milder attacks, although they won’t help you during an asthma attack. They include inhaled corticosteroids that, with regular treatment, help improve lung function and prevent symptoms and flare-ups, reducing the need for rescue medications.

Recently, the FDA approved a new version of Primatene Mist, an over-the-counter (OTC) rescue medication to treat symptoms of mild, intermittent asthma. Primatene Mist is only approved for use in people ages 12 and older. It should not be used in younger children because it is not known if the product works or is safe in kids younger than 12.

An OTC product is not right for everyone with asthma, and it should not be used without first consulting your health care provider to get a proper diagnosis and treatment plan. If you have already been diagnosed with asthma, discuss treatment options with your health care provider before taking any new medication. It is especially important not to stop taking the asthma medicine that your doctor has prescribed.

Primatene Mist is the only FDA approved non-prescription drug for asthma. There are some asthma products that are labeled as homeopathic and sold OTC, but these have not been evaluated by the FDA for safety and effectiveness.

If asthma is not appropriately treated and managed, you may have wheezing, shortness of breath, and coughing. You also could be at risk for life-threatening asthma attacks that may require emergency care or hospitalization. For those reasons, you should not take any medication for the treatment of asthma without consulting your health care provider.