HealthyLifeģ Students' Self-Care Guide

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 Section IĖCommon Health Problems Caution

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ďTreat your symptoms before they get out of control. Donít feel too proud to get treatment. Know your limits! Remember to follow all of your doctorís instructions and donít be afraid to ask questions.Ē

Dave S., University of Michigan

Asthma is a disease that affects the air passages in the lungs. People with asthma have supersensitive airways. Exposure to ďAsthma Attack TriggersĒ (see below) causes a response in the airways, called an ďattackĒ or ďepisode.Ē

Signs & Symptoms


A cough that lasts more than a week. Coughing may be the only symptom. It may occur during the night or after exercising.


Shortness of breath


Breathing gets harder and may hurt. It is harder to breathe out than in.


Wheezing (a whistling sound while breathing)


Tightness in the chest

Causes & Risk Factors

The cause for asthma is not known. You are more likely to have asthma if other members of your family have it and/or you have allergies. Asthma is more common in children who live in houses with pets and/or tobacco smoke.

Asthma is not caused by emotional problems. Strong emotions can bring on an asthma attack, though.

Asthma Attack Triggers

bullet Respiratory infections (colds, flu, bronchitis, sinus infections)
bullet Breathing an allergen (e.g., pollen, dust, mold, dander, etc.) or an irritant (e.g., tobacco smoke, air pollution, fumes, perfumes, etc.)
bullet Sulfites. These are additives found in wine and some processed foods.
bullet Cold air and changes in temperature and humidity
bullet Exercise, especially outdoors in cold air
bullet Some medicines, such as aspirin
bullet Strong feelings, including laughing and crying
bullet Hormone changes, such as those that come with menstrual periods


Asthma is too complex to treat with over-the-counter products. A health care provider should diagnose asthma and keep track of how you are doing. He or she may prescribe one or more medicines. Some kinds are to be taken with an asthma attack. Other kinds are taken daily (or as prescribed) to help prevent asthma attacks.

Medical Treatment Includes

bullet Anti-inflammatory drugs to help with swelling in the airways. They are taken as oral pills or inhaled medicines.
bullet Bronchodilator drugs to relax the muscles of the airways and open up the air passages in the lungs. A metered-dose inhaler is a common way to take these drugs.
bullet Leukotriene modifiers. These oral medicines help reduce chronic inflammation.
bullet A peak flow meter. This device helps you to monitor your asthma at home.
bullet Annual flu vaccine

If you have asthma, you should have an annual physical exam to detect any problems and to evaluate your use of medicines.

Asthma Inhaler

Questions to Ask

Do you have asthma with any of these problems?

  • Blue lips or fingernails
  • Extreme shortness of breath. (It may feel as if you canít breathe at all or you canít say 4 or 5 words between breaths.)
  • Listlessness or severe weakness
  • Dizziness; fainting
Yes. Get Immediate Care.



Do you have asthma with any of these problems?

  • Wheezing and you are currently taking corticosteroid medicine or wheezing that doesnít stop after your prescribed treatment
  • Coughing so much that you canít take a breath
  • A fever with heavy breathing
Yes. Get Immediate Care.


Do you have asthma and use the Peak Flow Zone System and is your peak expiratory flow rate (PEFR) below 50% of your personal best number? Yes. Get Immediate Care.



Do you have asthma with any of these problems?

  • You canít walk up a flight or more of stairs or between rooms.
  • You canít sleep or eat due to shortness of breath.
Yes. Get Immediate Care.


Do you have asthma, are you taking corticosteroid medicine, and do you have a cold, the flu, or bronchitis? Yes. See Provider.


Do you have asthma and use the Peak Flow Zone System and is your peak expiratory flow rate (PEFR) 50 to 80% of your personal best number? Yes. See Provider.


Do you have asthma and have symptoms at rest, with exercise, early in the morning, or at night? Yes. See Provider.


Do you have asthma and any of the following problems that are not managed with adjustments in medication as instructed in your personal action plan?
  • Breathing faster than usual or it is harder to breathe
  • Shortness of breath occurs more often.
  • A cough which keeps you awake at night
  • An asthma attack does not respond to prescribed medication and/or self-care like it used to.
  • Asthma attacks are coming more often and/or are getting worse.
Yes. See Provider.


Have you not been diagnosed with asthma, but have any signs and symptoms of asthma listed above? Yes. See Provider.


Do you use your bronchodilator more than 2 times a week? Yes. See Provider.



Do you have asthma and have any of these problems?

  • You cough at night or have a cough that does not respond to medication.
  • You are not sleeping well.
  • You are tired or are less able to perform daily activities.
Yes. See Provider.


Do you have asthma and need medicine refills? Yes. Call Provider.



Along with your prescribed medical treatment:

bullet Drink 2 to 3 quarts of fluids a day to keep secretions loose.
bullet Donít smoke. Avoid secondhand smoke and air pollution.
bullet Avoid your asthma triggers and try to keep your dorm room or bedroom allergen-free:
  • Vacuum and dust often. Wear a dust filter mask when you do.
  • Sleep with no pillow or the kind your doctor recommends. Wash pillows and sheets weekly. Replace pillows every 2 to 3 years.
  • Totally enclose your mattress, box springs, and pillows in allergen-proof covers. Wash mattress pads in hot water every week.
  • Use curtains and throw rugs that can be washed often. Donít use carpeting.
  • Reduce clutter in your room. Store items in plastic containers with lids.
  • Use a portable air purifier, such as one with a HEPA filter, if you can.
  • Use an air conditioner in the summer, if possible.
bullet Stay out of the cold weather as much as you can. When you are outside in cold weather, wear a scarf around your mouth and nose to warm the air as you breathe in.
bullet Stop exercising if you start wheezing.
bullet Use your peak flow meter as advised. Keep records of results.
bullet Donít take over-the-counter medicines unless cleared first with your health care provider. Take your medicines as prescribed.

Keep your medicine for asthma attacks handy. Take it at the start of an attack.

bullet During an asthma attack, sit up; donít lie down. Keep calm. Focus on breathing slow and easy. Remove yourself from any stressors.

For Information, Contact:

The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America
800.7.ASTHMA (727.8462)

National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI)
800.575.WELL (575.9355)

February 19, 2004

©2003, 4th edition. American Institute for Preventive Medicine All rights reserved.