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What is Asthma?

Asthma is a lung disease. People have it for many years. There is no cure for asthma, but you can take charge and learn to control it.

During an asthma episode, the airways in your lungs get swollen. Your chest feels tight. You may cough, wheeze, or have trouble breathing. This happens when your lungs are exposed to something - a trigger- to which your lungs react. The swelling in your lungs can be occurring slowly, even if you don't realize it is happening.

The best way to take charge of asthma is to work with a doctor over many months to find the right preventive medicine for you or your child so that your asthma is under control.

If you or your child keep having asthma episodes, then your asthma is not under control. People can die of asthma if they do not take it seriously and work with a doctor to control it.

Find a Good Asthma Doctor

Choose a doctor for asthma. When a doctor knows you or your child and has your medical records, you can handle many different problems over the phone from home. The doctor can try different amounts of medicine so that your asthma is under control, and you do not have problems with side effects.

  • Keeps all asthma appointments, even if you feel fine and are breathing well.
  • Ask the doctor for and Asthma Action Plan to use at home to help you control your asthma.
  • If you do not have a doctor, ask friends, family and other people you know for the names of doctors who take care of people with asthma.
  • Your doctor can send you to a specialist in asthma care if you or your child has special problems getting asthma under control.
  • Ask about a peak flow meter or a spacer to help you take charge of your asthma.

The New York City Childhood Asthma Initiative is a city-wide effort to reduce illness and death from childhood asthma in New York City by working to strengthen the ability of families, schools, communities, health care institutions and city government to control and prevent asthma. The Initiative will:

  • Promote improved family management of asthma
  • Promote the practice of state-of-the-art medical care
  • Help families to reduce exposure to asthma triggers in both homes and communities
  • Monitor and track the number of people with asthma
  • Increase community awareness of asthma

Control Your Asthma

You should control your asthma. Don't let your asthma control you! You should expect to:

  • Participate fully in all activities
  • Not miss school or work because of asthma
  • Have no severe asthma symptoms
  • Sleep through the night
  • Have no need to be hospitalized or go to the emergency room because of asthma.

Learn About Asthma Medicines

A preventive medicine keeps asthma episodes from starting. It works slowly over many days to stop the swelling in the airways. You take it every day even when you feel fine and can breathe well. There are also medicines you and take before running or playing to prevent episodes. Many people take their preventive medicine all year long for many years. You cannot become addicted or hooked on these asthma medicines even if you use them for many years. A quick relief medicine helps stop an asthma episode that has already started. It can keep the episode from getting serious. It works fast to stop the tightness and opens the airways in the lungs during an asthma episode. You take it at the first sign of a wheeze, cough, or tight chest. Sometimes doctors also tell people to take it every day for several weeks after an asthma episode, but quick relief medicines are not meant to be used to stop episodes every day for weeks and weeks.

Danger! Many People Use Their Quick Relief Medicine Too Much

Do you use your quick relief medicine every single day to stop an asthma episode?
Do you need it more than four times in one day to stop asthma episodes?

If you said "yes" to either question, then you are having too many asthma episodes. Your quick relief medicine may make you feel better for a little while, but you can be fooled into thinking that you are getting better. In fact, the airways in your lungs are getting more and more swollen, and you are in danger of having a very bad asthma episode.

Ask your doctor for a preventive medicine that will help stop the swelling in your airways so that an asthma episode does not even start.

Learn What Starts Your Asthma

If you or your child has asthma, you may be bothered by these things that do not bother other people.

Asthma episodes may come and go, but the lungs stay sensitive to thing that cause asthma episodes. Preventive medicines can help, but you need to do more. Figure out what things start the asthma episodes. Talk with your doctor and write down what you or your child did and where you were before each asthma episode. The more you do to protect yourself and your child, the fewer asthma episodes you or your child will have and the less asthma medicine you will need.

Prevent Asthma Episodes

  • Stay away from smoke. Ask people not to smoke in your home or car. Get help to quit smoking.
  • Protect yourself and your child where you sleep if you are allergic to tiny bugs called dust mites in beds and pillows by doing the following:
  • Put special dust mite-proof covers on the mattress and pillow.
  • Wash sheets, blankets, and the mattress pad in very hot water every week to kill dust mites.
  • Pick a stuffed animal for your child that can be washed with the sheets. Take rugs, soft chairs with cushions, extra pillows, and other stuffed animals out of the bedroom.
  • Find new homes for furry pets and birds if you are allergic to them. If you cannot give a pet away yet, then keep it out of the bedroom at all times.
  • Make an extra effort to get ride of roaches. Many people with asthma are allergic to them.
  • When pollen or pollution is bad, keep windows closed and use an air conditioner if you have one.
  • Work with others in your building or community to improve the environment.

Checklist For Visits To The Doctor

Ask the doctor or nurse to write the instructions for taking your medicines on an Asthma Action Plan.

Questions to ask the doctor or nurse:

  • Which medicines are preventive medicines and which are quick relief medicines?
  • For each medicine, ask:
    • How much to take and when to take it.
    • How long to take it.
    • What are the possible side effects and how to avoid them?
    • Is it an inhaled medicine, a pill, or a syrup?
    • About how much will it cost?
    • Can I get two prescriptions so that I can keep one at school?
  • Ask for a spacer if any medicines are in a pump.
  • Ask for a peak flow meter.
  • Ask what to do and who to call if your breathing gets worse and your medicine is not helping.
  • Ask to talk with a social worker if you have trouble paying for medicines or doctors visits, or need help with housing or other issues that affect your asthma.

At each visit, the doctor should:

  • Take a peak flow reading
  • Ask you about recent symptoms
  • Show you how to use a pump
  • Discuss your triggers and how to prevent asthma episodes
  • Tell you what to do if you have asthma at school or work
  • Tell you how to get in touch if you are having asthma symptoms after the office is closed
  • Review your Asthma Action Plan

When you go to the doctor, always:

  • Bring all of your medicines, including home remedies or non-prescription medicines
  • Bring your peak flow meter and diary
  • Bring your spacer
  • Demonstrate how you use your medicines and peak flow meter to make sure you are doing it right

Tell your doctor right away if, because of asthma, you have:

  • Missed school or work
  • Had symptoms, including waking at night due to coughing
  • Gone to the emergency room
  • Been hospitalized


  • Take your medicine exactly as the doctor says.
  • Get the prescriptions filled right away.
  • Take the right amount of medicine at the right times.
  • Keep taking the medicine as long as the doctor says to even if you feel fine and you are breathing well.
  • See your doctor within 2 days of any emergency room visit or hospitalization, EVEN IF YOU FEEL BETTER.

For more information, call 311.

See the UFT's guide to helping children manage asthma »