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How to Treat Asthma

Monday 13 May 2024
9 minute(s) read

Table of Contents

I. What is Asthma?

II. What Does Asthma Feel Like?

III. How Do You Get Asthma?

IV. Asthma Treatment

i. SMART Therapy

V. How to Treat Asthma without Inhalers

VI. How to Treat an Asthma Attack

VII. Conclusion

Asthma affects over 27 million Americans, causing symptoms like coughing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, and wheezing. [1] It's a chronic condition that requires ongoing management to keep under control. The good news is that most people with asthma can live active, fulfilled lives with the right treatment plan.

This article will explain what asthma is, what asthma feels like, and how to treat asthma on a day-to-day basis as well as during an attack. You'll learn about controller and rescue medications, avoiding triggers, and lifestyle changes to help manage your asthma. 

What is Asthma?

Asthma is a chronic condition that causes inflammation and narrowing of the airways in the lungs. This inflammation makes breathing difficult by limiting how much air can flow in and out of your lungs. [2]

Your airways are lined with muscles and contain mucus glands. For people with asthma, the airways tend to be particularly sensitive. [2] This leads to three key changes:

  • Swelling of the airway lining. This inflammation narrows the airways, leaving less space for air to move through.
  • Excess mucus production, which further blocks airflow.
  • Tightening of the muscles, which further narrows the airways. [2]

These changes restrict airflow in and out of the lungs. Air has trouble moving through the swollen, mucus-filled, and tightened airways. This obstruction is what causes breathing difficulties and other symptoms of asthma. [2]

Asthma triggers further inflame the swollen airways, producing more mucus and muscle tightening. This, in turn, can cause a severe asthma attack, making breathing extremely difficult and labored. [2]

Asthma triggers can be divided into two types: allergic and non-allergic.

  • Allergic trigger: pet dander, dust mites, pollen, mold.
  • Non-allergic trigger: smoke, cold air, air pollutants, intense emotions. [2]

While asthma is a chronic condition that has no cure yet, it can be managed with proper care. The right medications and lifestyle changes can help you prevent severe attacks and breathe easier. [2]

What Does Asthma Feel Like?

young boy with asthma

The way asthma feels differs from person to person and can even change over time for the same individual. When asthma symptoms are well-managed, people may have few or no symptoms. [2] However, when asthma is poorly controlled, the common signs include:

  • Shortness of breath. You may feel like you can’t get enough air into your lungs.
  • Frequent coughing. The cough may be dry or produce mucus.
  • Wheezing sounds when breathing. This is caused by airway narrowing.
  • Chest tightness. It may feel like something heavy is sitting on your chest.
  • Increased mucus production. This can make it hard to clear your throat.
  • Trouble sleeping because of breathing difficulties. You may wake up during the night due to coughing or shortness of breath.
  • Being unable to be physically active without breathing issues. Even mild activities may trigger symptoms. [2]

It's important to note that these symptoms can manifest gradually over hours or days or suddenly appear as an asthma attack. If left untreated, asthma can lead to long-term structural changes in the airways, known as "airway remodeling." This is why it is crucial to effectively manage and treat asthma over the long term. [2]

In addition, it's important to be aware that encountering triggers can worsen asthma symptoms and potentially lead to an asthma attack. Identifying and avoiding triggers, such as allergens or irritants, can significantly reduce the frequency and severity of symptoms. [2]

How Do You Get Asthma?

The exact cause of asthma remains a mystery, as research has yet to pinpoint a definitive answer. However, experts have identified several risk factors that can contribute to asthma development. [2]

  • Genetics: Over 30 genes linked to asthma have been discovered so far. Genetic differences also contribute to how individuals respond to treatment.
  • Family history: If a mother has asthma, the child is three times more likely to develop the condition. If a father has asthma, the child is 2.5 times more likely to be diagnosed with asthma.
  • Allergies: Not everyone with allergies gets asthma, and not all asthmatics have allergies. However, respiratory allergies and some asthma types are related to an antibody called immunoglobulin E (IgE). This antibody causes allergic reactions to protect the body, which can impact the lungs, nose, eyes, throat, and skin.
  • Premature birth: Premature birth can increase the risk of developing asthma later in life, particularly for children born before 37 weeks.
  • Lung infections during childhood: Certain lung infections in early childhood may predispose individuals to asthma in the future.
  • Occupational triggers: Occupational exposures to various substances in the workplace can lead to a specific type of asthma known as occupational asthma. With over 200 potential triggers, such as gases, dust particles, and chemical fumes, this form of asthma is a common cause of adult-onset asthma.
  • Menopause: Hormonal changes during menopause can contribute to the development of adult-onset asthma in women.
  • Obesity: Excess weight around the chest area can exert pressure on the lungs, making breathing more challenging. Additionally, fat tissue produces inflammatory substances that can impact lung function and potentially exacerbate asthma symptoms. [2]

Asthma Treatment

The two main components of asthma that make breathing difficult are:

  • Inflammation in the airways
  • Bronchoconstriction (tightening of the airways) [3]

To treat both issues, most people with asthma use two types of medication. Each medication focuses on treating a specific aspect of asthma. [3]

  • Controllers treat airway inflammation. These medications should be taken daily to maintain long-term control over your asthma. Over time, you will notice a reduction in symptoms as the controller medication effectively manages the underlying inflammation. It's important to continue taking controllers even when your asthma appears to be under control, as stopping them abruptly can lead to the return of airway inflammation.
  • Relievers, also known as rescue inhalers, provide rapid relief from acute asthma symptoms caused by bronchoconstriction. They quickly open the airways when breathing becomes difficult. However, relievers only provide temporary symptom relief and do not treat the underlying airway inflammation. If you find yourself using your rescue inhaler more than twice per week, that's a sign your asthma is not well-controlled. Discuss adjusting your treatment plan with your doctor. [3]

SMART Therapy

SMART therapy is an innovative approach for managing asthma. SMART stands for Single Maintenance and Reliever Therapy. Rather than using separate inhalers for maintenance and relief of symptoms, SMART therapy combines both treatments into a single inhaler. [4]

SMART inhalers contain two key components:

  • An inhaled corticosteroid that reduces inflammation in the airways.
  • Formoterol is a long-acting beta-agonist (LABA) that relaxes the airway muscles, keeping airways open for at least 12 hours. [4]

It's important to note that SMART therapy is currently only possible in inhalers containing the LABA formoterol. This is due to its rapid onset of action, which allows it to be used as a rescue bronchodilator. [5] Examples of SMART inhalers include:

Other combination inhalers like Advair and Breo Ellipta contain an ICS and a different LABA, so they do not qualify as SMART therapy. [4] However, they still provide the convenience of combining a bronchodilator and an ICS in one inhaler instead of two separate ones.

While using SMART inhalers or other combination inhalers, you should still have a short-acting rescue inhaler on hand for emergencies. These inhalers work the fastest to relieve symptoms. [4]

How to Treat Asthma without Inhalers

Asthma treatment requires a multifaceted approach that includes both inhalers and lifestyle changes. While inhalers play an important role in controlling airway inflammation and managing asthma attacks, there are also many lifestyle modifications that should be implemented.

  • Sleep: Getting enough high-quality sleep is one of the most beneficial things you can do for your lungs and overall well-being. Chronic lack of sleep taxes your immune system, which directly affects your ability to keep asthma and allergies under control.
  • Exercise: Staying active can reduce airway inflammation, strengthen your breathing muscles, and improve circulation to your heart and lungs. Check with your doctor before starting any new workout routine, especially if your asthma is not well-controlled. Overexertion can strain your lungs if you are already wheezing or coughing frequently.
  • Nutrition: Eating an anti-inflammatory diet full of lean protein, fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats may also tame asthma symptoms. Limiting refined carbs, sugar, and alcohol can help reduce systemic inflammation that impacts your airways. Focus on whole, nutrient-dense foods that don't promote inflammation.
  • Avoid asthma triggers: Do your best to avoid asthma triggers. However, if complete avoidance isn't possible, talk to your doctor about adjusting your medications on days when you anticipate significant exposure to allergens or irritants. [6]

How to Treat an Asthma Attack

man reaching for an inhaler during an asthma attack

If you are experiencing an asthma attack, use your rescue inhaler immediately. Your rescue inhaler contains a short-acting bronchodilator, also known as a reliever, that provides quick relief by relaxing the muscles around your airways. Most bronchodilators will open your airways and restore normal breathing within 10 to 15 minutes, and the effects last around 4 hours. [7]

However, if you do not have an inhaler handy during an asthma attack, try these tips to manage until you can get medical help:

  • Sit up straight to open your airways. Lying down or bending over can further constrict your airways.
  • Take slow, deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth.
  • Remove yourself from the trigger if possible. Get away from whatever is triggering your attack and into a clean, air-conditioned environment. Continue taking deep, slow breaths to open your airways.
  • Drink a warm, caffeinated beverage. Caffeine acts similarly to some asthma medications and can temporarily improve your breathing. Coffee or tea may help relax your airways during an attack. [8]

If these tips do not help, call an ambulance immediately. [8]

Once your asthma attack passes, follow up with your doctor immediately. An asthma attack may mean that your asthma is not fully controlled, and your medication may need to be adjusted. [8]


While asthma cannot be cured, it can be well-managed. With the help of your healthcare provider, you can find the right medication to effectively manage your symptoms and avoid triggers that exacerbate your condition. Additionally, making healthy lifestyle choices such as exercising regularly and maintaining a balanced diet can significantly improve your overall well-being and quality of life.

The content in this article is intended for informational purposes only. This website does not provide medical advice. In all circumstances, you should always seek the advice of your physician and/or other qualified health professionals(s) for drug, medical condition, or treatment advice. The content provided on this website is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.