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5 Steps for Asthma Self-Management

You’re in the driver’s seat when it comes to managing your asthma. Follow these five steps to help keep your asthma under control.

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Asthma is a serious disease. But if you’re like most people with asthma, you have the power to take control of it and live a normal, active life. Here’s how:

  1. Form a partnership with your doctor.
    Since there is no cure for asthma, it is important to develop strong relationships with your doctor and other medical staff members as you manage the disease. You will see them regularly. Don’t be shy about raising any questions you have, including:
    • How to use your inhaler properly, so you are getting enough medicine
    • How to use a peak flow meter to measure how well your lungs are working
    • What to do if your baseline symptoms are getting worse, as asthma can change over time
    • What to do if there is a sudden flare
  2. Recognize the symptoms of asthma and how to tell if they are getting worse.
    If you are managing your asthma, you may go long periods of time without seeing many symptoms. Talk to your doctor about symptoms you should watch for. If you have a flare-up, you may have some of the following symptoms:
    • Your peak flow is less than 80 percent of your best peak flow.
    • Coughing. Your coughing may become severe during a flare-up and be accompanied by chest tightness, making it harder to breathe. It may make it difficult to sleep.
    • Wheezing. A whistling or raspy sound when you breathe is another common sign of worsening asthma.
    • Breathlessness. People with asthma sometimes say they feel as if they aren’t getting enough air, or that they can’t fully breathe out. If the flare-up is severe, it may become difficult to speak without pausing to take a breath.
    • Waking at night due to symptoms.

Asthma can also worsen over time. Some symptoms that may indicate that your asthma is getting worse include:

  • Symptoms that are occurring more often.
  • Your medicine is not working as well as it had in the past.
  • You need to use your quick relief medicine more often.
  • Your symptoms are more severe when they occur.
  • Your symptoms wake you at night.
  1. Learn your asthma triggers and how to avoid them.
    If you have lived with your asthma for some time, you may be familiar with the things that can prompt an attack. Triggers are different from person to person. Learn what your triggers are and take steps to avoid them. Here are some of the most common triggers:
    • Allergens. People with asthma commonly have allergies as well. Some of the most common allergens are:
      • Animal dander. Contrary to common belief, a pet’s fur is not the culprit when it comes to allergies. Rather it is the dander and saliva on fur or feathers. If you or your child has asthma, don’t adopt pets that may trigger allergies. If you have a pet, keep them out of the bedrooms at all times.
      • Dust mites. Dust mites are tiny organisms found in almost every home. Regularly wash bed linens in hot water. Buy dust proof pillow and mattress covers designed to contain dust mites and their waste products. Remove stuffed animals and avoid down-filled bedding.
      • Cockroach droppings. Rid your house of cockroaches and their droppings by cleaning up food crumbs and spills. Vacuum or sweep every few days. Don’t leave food out.
      • Mold spores. Mold loves humidity. A dehumidifier can help remove water from the air. Fix water leaks that can promote mold growth behind walls. Wipe away visible mold.
      • Pollen. Trees, grasses and weeds can release pollens. Check the pollen count before going outside for activities. Stay inside when counts are high. Keep windows closed whenever possible.
    • Irritants. Substances in the air you breathe — like smoke, pollution, chemical fumes, paint and perfume — can bother your lungs. You should not smoke and people should not smoke in your home, where you work or in your car. Tobacco smoke, including secondhand smoke, can trigger an asthma attack. Watch for air quality reports in the news and plan outdoor activities for times of lower pollution. 
    • Physical activity. Exercise and physical activity can be a trigger for asthma flare-ups. But unlike other triggers, you should not avoid them. Talk to your health care provider about how you can manage your asthma during activities. Medications can help you stay active.
    • Respiratory infections. Colds, the flu and other respiratory infections can trigger an asthma attack. Get a flu shot every year to protect yourself against the virus. Check with your doctor to see if the pneumonia vaccine is right for you.
    • Strong emotions. Stress and intense emotions — as well as laughing and crying — can bring on very fast breathing, or hyperventilation, which can lead to an asthma attack. Talk to your doctor if you are feeling excessive stress or having difficulty with your emotions.
    • Sulfites. These additives to some food and drinks can also cause asthma attacks. Check labels to see if sulfites are in your food or drinks to help know what foods to avoid.
    • Medications. Certain medicines, including aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen, can trigger or worsen asthma symptoms. Talk to your doctor before using these medications.
  2. Know your medications and how to take them.
    • There are two general types of asthma medications. One is for long-term control of asthma. If your doctor prescribes these, you will need to take them every day to help control symptoms. The other type of medicine is for a flare of asthma and quick relief of symptoms. They may be referred to as “rescue” medicines.
    • Delivery device and proper technique. Both long-term and short-term asthma medicines may be taken through an inhaler. Get your medical professional’s advice on how to use your inhaler properly. It’s very important to make sure you have the right technique so the medicine reaches all the way into your lungs. A spacer may also be prescribed to use with your inhaler to help ensure optimum effectiveness.
  3. Monitor your asthma and respond to warning signs.
    While mild asthma symptoms can go away on their own, they also can become severe, leading to a potentially fatal asthma attack. Responding to symptoms when they first occur can be crucial. Two good tools for monitoring your asthma are a symptom diary and peak flow measurements. They can help you catch problems early and prevent an attack.
    • Keep a symptom diary. Write down your symptoms, noting when they occur and what may have caused them. You and your doctor can see how you’re doing over time, and adjust your treatment plan if necessary.
    • Use a peak flow meter. A peak flow meter is hand-held device that measures the airflow out of your lungs. Your doctor may tell you to test yourself every day and write down the results. A worsening of your scores may indicate that you are headed for an asthma attack even before you have symptoms.  Follow your Asthma Action Plan. You and your medical team can work together to create this plan. An Asthma Action Plan includes advice on taking medications properly, avoiding asthma triggers, tracking your symptoms and breathing levels, what to do when symptoms get worse and when to go to the emergency room.

By Emily Gurnon, Contributing Writer

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. How is asthma treated and controlled? Accessed: January 4, 2016.
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. What are the signs and symptoms of asthma? Accessed: January 4, 2016.
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Patient, families and caregivers. Accessed: January 4, 2016.

Last Updated: January 11, 2016