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Asthma: What Is It?

Asthma is a disease that affects a person’s breathing and can reduce the body’s ability to get oxygen to the lungs. With asthma, the inner lining of the airways can swell or become irritated and inflamed. When this happens, the person may cough or wheeze. There isn’t a cure for asthma, but it can be managed.

For children with asthma, communication is especially important to manage the disease. Parents or caregivers, doctors, school nurses, and teachers should all follow the steps outlined in a child’s asthma action plan to manage their asthma symptoms, triggers, and attacks.

Before your next doctor appointment, review this fact sheet, How to Talk With Your Doctor About Asthma, P-03558, to make sure you get all of the information you need to manage your asthma. This fact sheet is also available in Spanish.

Asthma risk factors

Although the exact cause of asthma is unknown, there are factors that can increase a person’s risk of developing the condition. These include:

  • Genetics—If someone in your family has asthma or allergies, your risk of developing asthma increases.
  • Early exposure—If you’re exposed to tobacco smoke, certain allergens, or viral infections at a young age, you’re more likely to develop asthma.

Asthma symptoms

Although their severity and frequency vary, here are a few common asthma symptoms:

  • Chest tightness
  • Intermittent cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing

Asthma triggers

There are several things that can cause an asthma attack. Some of the most common triggers include:

  • Outdoor air pollution (ground-level ozone, tiny particles, toxic air emissions)
  • Chemicals in scented or cleaning products
  • Exercise
  • Dust mites
  • Mold
  • Pests (cockroaches, mice)
  • Pets (skin, hair, saliva, feathers)
  • Pollen (grasses, trees, flowers)
  • Viral infections (colds, flu, COVID-19)
  • Strong emotions (crying, laughing, stress)
  • Strong odors
  • Tobacco smoke, which is the No. 1 preventable trigger of asthma
  • Weather (cold or dry air, high humidity, extreme temperature changes)

Reducing or getting rid of asthma triggers can prevent asthma symptoms and decrease their severity.

Basic asthma management

Young child with an inhaler and spacer
  • Avoid asthma triggers.
  • Develop an asthma action plan with your doctor or health-care provider, and follow it every day.
  • Take asthma medicine as prescribed.
  • Get an annual flu vaccine.
    • Use the American Lung Association’s flu shot locator to find a vaccine near you.
  • Get a COVID-19 vaccine and boosters as recommended.
    • Go to from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) to find a vaccine near you.

Asthma care at school

Learn why it is important to have an asthma action plan for your child at school.

If you care for a child with asthma, here are some tips to keep them safe at school:

  • Make sure your child takes their medicine as prescribed every day.
  • Give a copy of your child’s asthma action plan to their teachers and school nurse.
  • Give the school nurse or teachers their labeled medicine with instructions on how and when to give it.
  • Fill out school health forms, including emergency contacts. If your child can self-administer medications, fill out a school permission form stating they can take their asthma meds as needed without supervision.
  • Review the asthma action plan and the school’s emergency treatment process with your child.
  • Make sure your child gets a flu shot every fall.


Last revised May 8, 2024