Decatur County General Hospital

Health Information




What is asthma?

  • Asthma is a long-term disease that affects your airways. Airways are the tubes that carry air in and out of your lungs. If you have asthma, your airways can become swollen and inflamed. Swelling is a reaction to things that you are allergic to or find irritating. When the airways react, they get narrower and less air flows through to your lungs. This makes breathing hard and causes wheezing. This is called an asthma attack. Attacks are also called flare-ups, exacerbations, or episodes.
  • There is no cure for asthma. Over time and working with your caregiver, asthma can be controlled so that you have fewer symptoms. Taking care of your asthma is an important part of your life. Controlling it means taking medicines as directed by your caregivers and staying away from things that bother your airways such as cigarette smoke. Your asthma may change with time, and may get better or worse. Your treatment plan may need to be changed if your asthma changes. Controlling your asthma should let you keep doing your usual activities. With treatment, asthma can be managed so you are able to live a normal life.

What causes asthma? Caregivers do not exactly know what causes asthma. Caregivers know that if other people in your family have asthma, you are more likely to have it. The following are things that may make your asthma symptoms worse, and may trigger an asthma attack:

  • Allergens:
    • Animal dander.
    • Cockroaches and their droppings.
    • Dust or dust mites.
    • Molds.
    • Pollen from plants.


  • Irritants:
    • Air pollution.
    • Cigarette smoke.
    • Cold air or changes in weather.
    • Scented products such as perfumes and deodorants, and strong odors from painting or cooking.
    • Strong emotional expression such as crying or laughing hard.
    • Stress.


  • Others:
    • A condition called gastroesophageal reflux disease or "GERD". This causes heartburn and can worsen asthma symptoms, especially at night.
    • Food or beverages containing sulfites such as dried fruits and wine.
    • Medicines such as aspirin, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or "NSAID", and blood pressure medicine such as beta-blockers.
    • Certain activities can also cause exercise-induced asthma.
    • Viral or bacterial infections especially of the upper airways.

What are the signs and symptoms of asthma? You might not have all of these symptoms, or your symptoms may change. Your symptoms may also vary from one asthma episode to the next. Symptoms may be mild during one asthma episode, and severe during another. Common signs and symptoms of asthma include:

  • Coughing: This is often worse at night or early in the morning making it hard to sleep.
  • Wheezing: A whistling or squeaky sound when you breathe.
  • Chest tightness: This can feel like something is squeezing or sitting on your chest.
  • Difficulty breathing: You may have problems breathing or feel breathless or out of breath. You may feel like you can not get enough air in or out of your lungs.

Most people with asthma have warning signs before symptoms appear. The warning signs are not the same for everyone. Your own warning signs may even be different from time to time. By learning what your warning signs are, you can start treatment sooner. This may keep you from having a serious asthma attack. The following are some of the warning signs of an asthma attack:

  • Breathing faster than normal.
  • Difficulty sleeping.
  • Fast heartbeat.
  • Feeling more tired than usual.
  • Itchy or sore throat.
  • Shortness of breath during exercise.

What is a peak flow meter? A peak flow meter is a small, plastic, tube-like device that you carry with you. This measures how well air moves out of your lungs, also called your peak expiratory flow or "PEF". Using the peak flow meter correctly will help you better monitor and manage your asthma. Ask caregivers for more information on how to use the peak flow meter. Ask caregivers to explain how the PEF reading variability can help you learn the level of your asthma severity.

What are the levels of asthma? Caregivers often classify your asthma to different levels of severity. This is based on your symptoms, how often your asthma attacks occur, and the readings from your peak flow meter.

  • Mild intermittent:
    • Asthma symptoms occur twice a week or less.
    • Nighttime symptoms occur twice a month or less.
    • Asthma attacks last a few hours to a few days with varying intensity. You may have no symptoms between attacks.
    • PEF reading variability of less than 20 percent.


  • Mild persistent:
    • Asthma symptoms occur twice a week or more but not everyday.
    • Nighttime symptoms occur more than twice a month.
    • Asthma attacks may slow your daily activities.
    • PEF reading variability of 20 percent to 30 percent.


  • Moderate persistent:
    • Asthma symptoms occur daily.
    • You use your quick-relief medicines daily.
    • Nighttime symptoms occur more than once a week.
    • Asthma attacks occur twice a week or more, and get in the way of your daily activities.
    • PEF reading variability of more than 30 percent.


  • Severe persistent:
    • You have asthma symptoms throughout the day on most days.
    • You have symptoms on most nights.
    • Asthma attacks happen almost all the time limiting your daily activities.
    • PEF reading variability of more than 30 percent.

How is asthma diagnosed? You may need one or more of the following tests:

  • Allergy testing: Allergy tests are used to help you learn what causes your allergic reactions. There are many methods of allergy testing such as skin tests, elimination-type tests, and the radioallergosorbent test or "RAST".
  • Chest x-ray: This is a picture of your lungs and heart. Caregivers use it to see how your lungs and heart are doing. Caregivers may use the x-ray to look for signs of infection like pneumonia, or to look for collapsed lungs. Chest x-rays may show tumors, broken ribs, or fluid around the heart and lungs.
  • Pulmonary function tests: Pulmonary function tests, also called PFTs, help caregivers learn how well your lungs work. PFTs may also help your caregivers decide on the best treatment for you. During the tests, you breathe into a mouthpiece connected to a machine. The machine measures how much air you breathe in and out over a certain amount of time. This helps caregivers to see how well your lungs are moving and working.

How is asthma treated? You and your caregiver will make a plan to treat your asthma. You may need any of the following to control your asthma:

  • Quick-relief medicines: These medicines are taken to quickly open your airways and to treat other symptoms. Quick-relief medicines are also called bronchodilators. Bronchodilators relax the muscles that have tightened around the airways. These allow the airways to open wider, making it easier to breathe. These medicines are used to treat asthma attacks.
  • Long-term control medicines: These medicines are taken every day to control asthma that does not go away. These medicines help decrease inflammation of the airways. Inflammation is when your airways swell and tighten. Inhaled steroid medicines are commonly used for long-term control of asthma.

How do I find support and more information? Asthma is a life-changing disease for you and your family. Accepting that you have asthma may be hard. You and those around you may feel scared, confused, and anxious. These feelings are normal. Talk to your caregiver, family or friends about your feelings. You may also want to join a support group with other people who have asthma. Ask your caregiver for contact information for support groups. Contact the following for more information:

  • American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology
    555 E. Wells St, Suite 1100
    Milwaukee, WI 53202-3823
    Phone: 1-800-822-2762
    Web Address:
  • American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology
    85 West Algonquin Road, Suite 550
    Arlington Heights, IL 60005
    Phone: 1-847-4271200
    Phone: 1-800-8427777
    Web Address:
  • National Asthma Education and Prevention Program
    National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute
    National Asthma Education and Prevention Program
    P.O. Box 30105
    Bethesda, MD 20824-0105
    Phone: 1-301-592-8573
    Web Address: