Asthma (Adult)

Asthma is a disease where the medium and small air passages in the lung go into spasm and restrict air flow. Inflammation and swelling of the airways cause further blockage. During an acute asthma attack, these factors cause trouble breathing, wheezing, cough, and chest tightness.

Illustration showing the lungs and a close up view of a bronchiole, a small airways that can get inflamed and restrict the flow of air.

An asthma attack can be triggered by many things. Common triggers include infections such as the common cold, bronchitis, and pneumonia. Irritants such as smoke or pollutants in the air, very cold air, emotional upset, and exercise can also trigger an attack. In many adults with asthma, allergies to dust, mold, pollen, and animal dander can cause an asthma attack. Skipping doses of daily asthma medicine can also bring on an asthma attack.

Asthma can be controlled using the correct medicines prescribed by your healthcare provider and staying away from known triggers including allergens and irritants.

Home care

  • Take prescribed medicine exactly at the times advised. If you need medicine such as from a handheld inhaler or aerosol breathing machine more than every 4 hours, contact your healthcare provider or get medical care right away. If you are prescribed an antibiotic or prednisone, take all of the medicine as prescribed. Keep taking it even if you are feeling better after a few days.

  • Don't smoke. Stay away from the smoke of others.

  • Some people with asthma find their symptoms get worse when they take aspirin and non-steroidal or fever-reducing medicines such as ibuprofen and naproxen. Talk with your healthcare provider if you think this may apply to you.

Follow-up care

Follow up with your healthcare provider, or as advised. Always bring all of your current medicines to any appointments with your healthcare provider. Also bring a complete list of medicines, even those not taken for asthma. If you don't already have one, talk with your healthcare provider about making your own Asthma Action Plan.

A pneumonia (pneumococcal) vaccine and yearly flu shot (every fall) are advised. Ask your provider about this.

When to get medical advice

Call your healthcare provider or get medical care right away if any of these occur: 

  • More wheezing or shortness of breath

  • Need to use your inhalers more often than normal without relief

  • Fever of 100.4ºF (38ºC) or higher, or as directed by your provider

  • Coughing up lots of dark-colored or bloody sputum (mucus)

  • Chest pain with each breath

  • If you use a peak flow meter as part of an Asthma Action Plan, and you are still in the yellow zone (50% to 80%) 15 minutes after using inhaler medicine.

Call 911

Call 911 if any of these occur:

  • Trouble walking or talking because you are short of breath

  • If you use a peak flow meter as part of an Asthma Action Plan, and you are still in the red zone (less than 50%) 15 minutes after using inhaler medicine

  • Lips or fingernails turn gray, purple, or blue

  • Feeling faint or loss of consciousness

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