Approximately 34.1 million people in the United States have been diagnosed with asthma—a disease characterized by sensitive airway passages of the lungs—during their lifetime. When an asthma episode or attack occurs, these passages become inflamed and produce mucus, which can lead to symptoms like coughing, wheezing and chest tightness. But most critically, these clogged passages obstruct breathing and can even become life threatening in severe cases.

We asked Christopher C. Randolph, MD, asthma expert and a member of the board of directors with the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology to tell us more.

Q: What, if anything, can be done to prevent asthma?
A: Unfortunately we don't know of anything that can prevent the development of asthma because it's genetic. But you can help prevent an asthma attack by being aware of your triggers.

Avoiding triggers is important. Some with asthma might react to cold air, being sick, or even doing exercise. I encourage people with asthma to be evaluated for allergies as well via skin prick tests. If you’re diagnosed with allergies, you’ll have to do simple things to your environment to minimize your exposure to those allergens. About half with people with asthma have allergic-asthma.

Q: What are the most common triggers, and what can you do to avoid them?
A: Pets, dust mites, mold and outdoor allergens are common asthma triggers.

Pets. If you have a pet allergy and want to keep pets in your home, at least keep them out of your bedroom or you'll be breathing pet dander all night long.

Dust mites. You won't need a fancy filter to avoid dust mites, because they’re not airborne. Instead, wash your bedding regularly in hot water to kill the mites, and cover your mattress and pillow with a special allergen cover. You might also want to pull up carpets and replace them with area rugs you can wash in a washing machine.

Mold. Treat visible mold with bleach, which kills the mold.

Outdoor allergens. Stay indoors when pollen levels peak, and be sure to close your windows. Allergens that come in through open windows can be caught in your house indefinitely.

Q: Aside from avoiding your triggers, what can you do to keep flare ups from occurring?
A: People with severe or chronic asthma will take regular medications—controller medicines—as well as have medicines on hand to use during an attack, called rescue medications. It’s important to take these medications exactly as your doctor has prescribed them to control your asthma.

It's important to not only treat your asthma but your allergies as well if you're diagnosed with allergic asthma. Use both your inhaled steroid and a nasal steroid regularly. If you have allergic-asthma and don't treat both conditions, you’re not going to be successful at controlling your asthma. Allergy shots might help some people as well.

Q: How should people with asthma monitor their condition?
A: There is something called a peak flow meter that is a simple device to use that monitors how much air is effectively being pushed through your airways. When you blow hard into the meter, you'll be able to read your result in numbers. As part of your asthma plan, your doctor can tell you what result is normal for you, what indicates you're in trouble, and who to call if you need help.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 25 May 2010

Last Modified: 17 Aug 2015