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A primary care physician talks with her male patient about his wellness plan while they wear masks.

Asthma causes and management

Asthma is a chronic respiratory condition characterized by inflamed and narrowed airways, causing symptoms like coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness. It can vary in severity and requires ongoing management to control symptoms and prevent exacerbations. The exact causes of asthma are not fully understood, but a combination of genetic and environmental factors contributes to its development. Some common factors that can increase the risk of asthma include:

  • Genetics: A family history of asthma or other allergic conditions can predispose individuals to develop asthma.

  • Allergies: Exposure to allergens such as pollen, dust mites, pet dander, and mold can trigger asthma symptoms in susceptible individuals.

  • Respiratory infections: Early respiratory infections, especially in childhood, can impact lung development and increase the likelihood of asthma.

  • Environmental factors: Exposure to tobacco smoke, air pollution, and other pollutants can contribute to the development of asthma.

  • Occupational exposures: Some workplaces have substances or irritants that can trigger asthma symptoms in those who are sensitive.

  • Childhood respiratory infections: Certain viral infections in childhood can lead to a higher risk of asthma.

  • Obesity: Obesity is associated with an increased risk of asthma, particularly in adults.

  • Physical activity: Intense physical activity, especially in cold or dry air, can trigger exercise-induced bronchoconstriction in some individuals.

  • Stress: Emotional stress and anxiety may worsen asthma symptoms.


Asthma symptoms

Asthma symptoms can vary from person to person, but common symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath

  • Coughing

  • Wheezing

  • Chest tightness

  • Increased mucus production


It's important to note that asthma symptoms can range from mild to severe, and they may come and go. Some individuals may have long periods without symptoms, while others might experience frequent flare-ups. If you suspect you have asthma or are experiencing these symptoms, it's advisable to consult a St. Joseph Health primary care provider for proper evaluation and management.

Asthma treatment options

The treatment of asthma aims to control symptoms, prevent asthma attacks, and improve overall lung function. The specific treatment plan may vary based on the severity of the condition and individual needs, but it generally includes the following approaches:

  • Medications:

    • Bronchodilators: These medications relax the muscles around the airways, making it easier to breathe. They provide quick relief during asthma attacks. Short-acting bronchodilators are often used as "rescue" inhalers.

    • Anti-inflammatory medications: Corticosteroids (inhaled or oral) help reduce airway inflammation and prevent asthma symptoms. They are used regularly to control asthma and minimize flare-ups.

    • Long-acting bronchodilators: These are used in combination with anti-inflammatory medications for better long-term control of asthma.

    • Biologics: These newer medications target specific immune responses and may be prescribed for severe asthma cases.

  • Lifestyle and self-management:

    • Avoiding triggers: Identifying and minimizing exposure to asthma triggers, such as allergens, smoke, and pollutants.

    • Creating an asthma action plan: A personalized plan that outlines how to manage asthma on a day-to-day basis and what to do during worsening symptoms or emergencies.

    • Regular monitoring: Using peak flow meters or spirometers to monitor lung function and detect changes in asthma control.

    • Healthy lifestyle: Maintaining a healthy diet, staying physically active, and managing stress can contribute to better asthma control.

  • Education and support:

    • Asthma education: Learning about asthma triggers, medications, proper inhaler techniques, and self-management strategies.

    • Support groups: Connecting with others who have asthma can provide emotional support and practical tips for managing the condition.

  • Allergy management:

    • Allergen avoidance: Minimizing exposure to allergens that trigger asthma symptoms.

    • Allergy medications: Antihistamines or allergy shots may help manage allergic triggers.

  • Emergency plan: Knowing when and how to seek emergency medical help during severe asthma attacks.


Individuals with asthma need to work closely with a St. Joseph Health primary care provider to develop a personalized treatment plan. This plan should address their specific symptoms, triggers, and needs to achieve optimal asthma control and improve their quality of life.

Best tips for exercising when you have asthma

  • Consult your provider: Before starting any exercise routine, discuss your plans with your healthcare provider. They can offer guidance on appropriate activities and help adjust your asthma management plan accordingly.

  • Warm up gradually: Start with a gentle warm-up to gradually increase your heart rate and prepare your lungs for more intense activity.

  • Choose the right activities: Opt for exercises that are less likely to trigger asthma symptoms, such as swimming, walking, cycling, or yoga. Avoid activities in cold, dry air or high-pollution environments.

  • Use your inhaler: If your health care provider recommends it, use your rescue inhaler before exercising to prevent exercise-induced bronchoconstriction.

  • Pace yourself: Start with shorter exercise sessions and gradually increase the duration and intensity as your fitness improves.

  • Listen to your body: Pay attention to any signs of asthma symptoms, such as coughing, wheezing, or shortness of breath. If symptoms arise, take a break and use your inhaler if needed.

  • Cool down: After exercising, incorporate a gradual cool-down to bring your heart rate and breathing back to normal.

  • Educate your workout partners: If you're exercising with others, let them know about your asthma and inform them of what to do in case of an emergency.


Steps for using an inhaler

Using an inhaler correctly is essential to ensure that the medication reaches your lungs effectively. Here's a step-by-step guide on how to use an inhaler:

  • Preparation: Stand or sit up straight and remove the cap from the inhaler and shake it well.

  • Breathe out: Exhale gently and completely to empty your lungs.

  • Hold the inhaler upright with your index finger on top and your thumb supporting the bottom.

  • Tilt your head slightly backward to open up your airways.

  • Mouthpiece:

    • If it's a regular inhaler (without a spacer): Place the mouthpiece in your mouth, between your teeth, and close your lips tightly around it.

    • If it's a metered-dose inhaler (MDI) with a spacer: Attach the spacer to the inhaler. Place the mouthpiece of the spacer in your mouth and close your lips around it.

  • Start inhaling slowly and deeply through your mouth as you press down on the inhaler canister. If using a spacer, press down on the inhaler canister and then start inhaling.

  • Hold your breath for about 10 seconds to allow the medication to reach deep into your lungs.

  • Exhale slowly through your nose or mouth.

  • Wait and repeat: If your provider prescribed multiple puffs, wait about 30 seconds to 1 minute between puffs. Shake the inhaler again before each puff.

  • Rinse mouth, if needed: Some medications may leave a bitter taste or cause a dry mouth. Gargling or rinsing your mouth with water can help prevent this.

  • Put the cap back on the inhaler to keep it clean.


Remember, it's important to coordinate pressing the inhaler canister with your inhalation. If you have any difficulty using your inhaler, or if you're unsure whether you're using it correctly, don't hesitate to ask your allergist or immunologist for guidance. They can demonstrate the proper technique and ensure that you're getting the full benefit of your medication.

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