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Teen Asthma Basics

So you have asthma. Do you control it, or does it control you? Learn how to take charge of your asthma and feel great.

Just the facts

  • With your doctor or asthma educator, make an Asthma Action Plan that fits your life.
  • Know your triggers and how to avoid them
  • Take your asthma medicines at the right times, and take the right amount
  • Keep your quick-relief inhaler with you, and use it when you need it. There is a law in Michigan that allows students to carry their asthma inhalers with them as long as they have permission from their doctor and parent. Learn about that law.
  • Watch for early warning signs of an asthma attack, and get help if you need it

What is Asthma?

Asthma is a lifelong, or chronic, lung disease that makes your lungs more sensitive than other people's. This condition is with you every day, even if you don't have symptoms. Sensitive airways can react to different things, called triggers. Once your asthma is "triggered," the lining of the airways gets inflamed or swollen and the muscles around the airways tighten, making breathing difficult.

Is Asthma a Serious Disease?

Asthma is a serious disease, and can kill if it is not treated the right way. When it is treated right, people with asthma can live normal, active lives.

What are the Symptoms of Asthma?

There are early warning signs that can sometimes clue you in that an asthma attack is coming. See if you can spot yours.

Not all people with asthma have the same symptoms. The most common symptoms of asthma are:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest "tightness"
  • Wheezing (noisy breathing)
  • Cough lasting more than a week, or that happens during the night or after exercise
  • When you have a cold, it lasts for more than 10 days, and goes into your chest

Who Gets Asthma?

Anyone can develop asthma, at any age. Sometimes it starts as a baby, other times it starts later in childhood or in the teen years. Although some kids seem to "outgrow" asthma, the symptoms can return years later. Some people start having asthma symptoms after a bad cold or flu.

What is an Asthma Attack?

An asthma "attack" or episode is a time of increased asthma symptoms. The symptoms can be mild or severe. Anyone can have a severe attack, even a person with mild asthma. The attack can start suddenly or slowly. Sometimes a mild attack will seem to go away, but will come back a few hours later. This second attack may be much worse than the first. Severe asthma symptoms mean a severe attack – if you experience severe symptoms, take your quick-relief medication and call the doctor or 911 right away.

Knowing what is happening in the lungs during an asthma attack will help you to know why it often takes more than one medicine to keep your asthma under control. During an asthma attack the lining of the airways in the lungs swells. The airways make a thick mucus. The muscles around the airways tighten and make the airways narrower. All of these changes in the lungs block the flow of air, making it hard to breathe. When you are having an asthma attack you feel like you can't breathe, and it's pretty scary!

What should you do during an asthma attack?

Follow your Asthma Action Plan! Having a plan written down that tells you how to handle any asthma symptoms can be a big relief. If you don’t have one, talk to your doctor or asthma educator and – GET ONE!

Okay, along with following the Asthma Action Plan, here are some other helpful hints:

1. Stay calm, and try to relax. It isn't easy! But the more you panic, the worse your breathing will get.

2. Tell any adult. Whoever is around – teacher, coach, parent, will be able to help you, or get you help, if you need it. Don't try to tough it out alone!

3. Take the quick-relief medication as your Asthma Action Plan tells you to. Not sure which medication is the quick-relief one? Ask your doctor, asthma counselor, or pharmacist about it before you need it in an emergency!

4. If the quick-relief medicine hasn't helped in 5-10 minutes, call the doctor or 911.

5. Keep taking the quick-relief medicine every 5-10 minutes until the ambulance arrives.

Never adjust your asthma medications or change how much you take unless your doctor has written it in your Asthma Action Plan or told you to do so over the phone.

What Can You Expect from Your Asthma Treatment?

With proper treatment for your asthma, you should be able to:
  • Stay active without having asthma symptoms (this includes exercising and playing sports)
  • Reduce or even prevent asthma symptoms
    • No missed school or work because of asthma
    • No or minimal need for emergency department visits or hospitalizations
    • Sleep through the night without having asthma symptoms
  • Have no or very few side effects from asthma medicines

If you are still having asthma symptoms, even after you take your asthma medicines, talk to your doctor or asthma educator. They can work with you to help you breathe well all the time.

How Is Asthma Controlled?

There are two important ways to treat and control asthma:
  1. Prevent asthma symptoms from starting
  • You will need to find out what triggers your asthma symptoms. Once you know your triggers, you can avoid them to help prevent asthma attacks. Be open and honest with your doctor about your life. If he doesn't know that you like to play soccer with your friends after school, he can’t help you prevent asthma attacks triggered by running.
  • Your doctor may want you to take:
    • Medicines that keep the airways from becoming swollen (called long-term controllers). These medicines need to be taken regularly, even when you're feeling good.
    • Medicines that help you breathe better fast (called quick-relief medicines) which may also be taken to prevent an asthma attack when you know you're about to be triggered by something. You should keep this kind of medicine with you at all times, even at school.
  • You may need to take one or both types of medicines to help you prevent asthma symptoms. Your Asthma Action Plan will tell you when and how much to take of any asthma medicine.
  1. Stopping symptoms or asthma attacks after they have started
  • You need to learn to watch your body for the early warning signs that can clue you in to possible asthma trouble. It is important to treat even mild symptoms or warning signs of asthma to keep them from turning into a severe attack.
  • If you are having symptoms, your Asthma Action Plan will tell you what to do. Your plan will likely tell you to take quick-relief medicines that help you breathe better fast. Be sure to keep your quick-relief medicine handy. Get help right away if your symptoms do not improve or get worse after you take your medicine.
Adapted from "Your Asthma Can Be Controlled: Expect Nothing Less," National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, NIH Publication No. 92-2664, 1992, Updated 2007.