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Asthma is a common chronic or long-term disease. It involves the respiratory system which includes your airways and lungs. Various triggers cause the airways to contrict and become inflammed. In some cases the airways are filled with excessive amounts of mucus. All these events lead to airway obstruction. Airway constriction causes symptoms such as wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, and coughing. An asthma exacerbation also referred to as an asthma attack may occur suddenly, with a feeling of chest tightness, difficulty breathing, coughing and wheezing. The symptoms of asthma, which can range from mild to life threatening, can usually, be controlled with a combination of medicines and environmental changes. Between episodes, most children will feel well but the airways may still be inflamed.


Asthma is often diagnosed by symptoms and exam findings. Your doctor may recommend spirometry testing, a breathing test that is used to detect and quantify the degree of airway obstruction. Spirometry is used to establish a diagnosis of asthma. Spirometry is also used to monitor lung function over time in those who already have asthma. It is recommended that spirometry be performed at least once every one or two years. To perform the test appropriately you have to be at least 5 years old and able to hold your breath for at least 6 seconds.

Triggers and prevention

  • Colds or respiratory infections– Wash hands often. Follow your Asthma Plan at the first sign of a cold. Don’t forget to get your flu shot every year.
  • Pets – Avoid pets with fur, hair or feathers. Wash pets regularly. Keep pets outside if possible. Keep pets out of the bedroom. Vacuum often, ideally using a vacuum with a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filter. HEPA filters may help to remove pet dander from the air.
  • Dust Mites – Pillows, mattresses, bedding, and rugs or carpet all attract dust and dust mites, which are tiny bugs you cannot see. Dust and vacuum regularly, ideally using a vacuum with a HEPA filter. Use mite-proof covers for pillows and mattresses. Wash bedding once a week in hot water. Keep stuffed animals and toys off the bed and wash them weekly in hot water. Keep room humidity between 30-50 percent by using a dehumidifier or air conditioner.
  • Pollen - Tree pollens cause problems in early spring, grass pollens in late spring and early summer, and weed pollens in late summer and fall. Try to keep your windows closed. Stay indoors if possible with your windows closed during the late morning and afternoon hours, when pollen counts are highest. In some instances, allergy shots may become necessary
  • Tobacco smoke – Don’t smoke. Don’t allow smoking in your home or car.
  • Indoor Molds – Keep humidity between 30- 50 percent. Keep bathrooms & basements dry. Replace or wash moldy shower curtains.
  • Outdoor Molds – Avoid decomposing leaves, garden waste and brown grass in the spring and fall.
  • Irritants – Avoid fume and chemicals including perfume, hairspray and paint whenever possible. Do not use a wood-burning stove, kerosene heater, or fireplace whenever possible
  • Weather changes- Cover your nose and mouth with a scarf when outdoors on cold or windy days.
  • Emotions – Avoid stressful situations. Find ways to manage your stress. Relax!
  • Exercise – Do not avoid exercise! Use your “quick-relief” medicine 15-20 minutes before exercise if you need it. Read more about exercise and asthma below.


Regular exercise is important for everyone, even if you have asthma. Exercise can be a trigger for some. With proper management you should not be limited in physical activity. Aerobic exercise help improves airway function by strengthening breathing muscles. The key to safe exercise is to work with your doctor to make sure your asthma symptoms are controlled.

Symptoms you may experience with exercise include:

  • Chest tightness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Coughing
  • Problems keeping up with teammates

Here are some tips for exercising with asthma:

  • First, have an Asthma Action Plan in place
  • Communicate regularly with your teachers and coaches
  • Carry a “quick-relief” medication
  • Stretch or warm up and cool down 10-15 minutes before and after exercising
  • Take a “quick-relief” medication 15-20 minutes before exercising, as recommended by your doctor

If asthma stops you from being active, your asthma is out of control and you should see your doctor.


There are two major categories of asthma medicines. These medicines are used during an asthma attack to relieve acute symptoms of wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, and coughing. They do not suppress the underlying inflammation. If you need to use your rescue or “quick-relief” medicine more than twice a week, it means that your asthma is not well controlled and you should seek advice from your doctor for better asthma management. These medicines suppress the underlying inflammation and reduce the swelling in the lining of the airways. With the proper use of preventive medicines, you can avoid the complications that result from overuse of “quick-relief” medicines. There are various forms of controller medicines that your doctor can review with you.


  • Work with your doctor to develop your personalized asthma management goals. Here are examples of some of the goals:
  • Prevent or reduce chronic, troublesome asthma symptoms
  • Prevent or reduce the need for “quick relief” medicines
  • Maintain normal levels of physical activities
  • Prevent asthma-related emergency department visits
  • Prevent asthma-related hospital stays
  • Prevent or reduce time off from school or work

To learn more about asthma and asthma management, please watch our entire asthma video or specific segment on youtube

UCSF Benioff Children's Hospitals medical specialists have reviewed this information. It is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your child's doctor or other health care provider. We encourage you to discuss any questions or concerns you may have with your child's provider.

Where to get care (1)

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Asthma Program

Asthma Program

San Francisco / Oakland

Recommended reading


Living With Asthma

Children with asthma regularly take medications to manage symptoms. Read how to take inhaled medications, keep inhalers clean and avoid asthma triggers.


Living With Asthma: Educational Videos

Our videos offer practical information on how to manage your child's asthma, such as symptoms, triggers, medications, exercise tips and more. Watch now.

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