Asthma: Diagnosis and Treatment

Young women's version of this guide

Teen using an inhaler for their asthma

If I think I have asthma what should I do?

If you haven’t been to your health care provider yet and you think you might have asthma, call and make an appointment as soon as possible. Getting diagnosed and treated quickly will make a big difference in the way you feel.

How is asthma diagnosed?

Only your health care provider can tell if you have asthma. They will ask you questions about how you are feeling in general and also specific questions about your breathing. You will be asked about your past health, your family’s health, about any medications you take, and if you have any allergies. Your health care provider will likely give you a physical exam and check your nose, listen to your lungs and heart, etc. to make sure you don’t have any other problems. You might be asked to breathe into a tube (called a “peak flow meter”) that measures how much air your lungs can hold. If you are diagnosed with asthma you may be referred to a specialist.

What is exercise-induced asthma (EIA)?

Some people only have asthma symptoms when they exercise or play sports – called exercise-induced asthma (EIA). People with EIA have airways that are overly sensitive to sudden changes in temperature and humidity, especially when breathing colder, drier air during aerobic exercise. There are some things you can do to help control exercise-induced asthma.

  • Take a quick-acting prescription inhaler (usually albuterol) 15 minutes before you exercise (to open up your airway)
  • Do warm-up exercises for about 10-minutes before heavy physical activity
  • Begin exercising slowly and work up to a faster pace – this has been found to prevent asthma symptoms during exercise
  • If you have symptoms and need your albuterol more than twice a week, you probably need a medication you can take daily to control your symptoms. This daily controller medication may come as another type of inhaler, or as a pill. See your health care provider if you need your daily rescue medication (albuterol) more than twice a week when you are otherwise feeling well.

If you’re having trouble with your asthma while you are exercising, try the following:

  • IMMEDIATELY STOP any activity you are doing and stay calm. Sometimes just taking a break helps
  • Get out of the cold temperature and away from dust and dirt particles such as dust from a dry soccer field
  • Take your quick-relief/albuterol inhaler (you should always carry one with you if you have asthma!)
  • Slow and calm your breathing – breathing fast can make your asthma worse
  • Get medical attention if you are not better


How is asthma treated?

Asthma is treated by keeping track of how well your lungs are working (your health care provider will listen to your lungs), taking medications as directed, avoiding things that make it worse (triggers), controlling things in your environment, and learning how to manage it. Although there is currently no cure for asthma, it can be controlled extremely well.

An important part of asthma care is what you do to help manage it. Controlled asthma means you have very few or no symptoms and are able to do everything you want to do.

Tips to control your asthma symptoms:

  • See your health care provider regularly and talk about any concerns you might have
  • Take medications as prescribed by your health care provider
  • Use a spacer with all inhaled medication, unless it is a dry powder. (Your health care provider will tell you if your inhaler is a dry powder.)
  • Use a “peak flow meter” if you have one, especially to check your numbers when you have a cold or flu
  • Keep a “symptom diary” that describes time, date, severity (how bad you feel) and exposure activity (what were you doing when the symptoms got worse)
  • Know your asthma “triggers” and try to avoid or eliminate them
  • Pay attention to your asthma so you know when it is getting worse and when to get help
  • Rest if your asthma is bothering you
  • Don’t smoke, or quit if you do (this includes vaping)
  • Learn as much as you can about asthma because the more you know, the better you can help care for yourself and feel good most of the time
You may have times when you don’t take care of your asthma as you usually do, such as forgetting to take your medicine or not remembering what triggers your asthma. Sometimes no matter what you do, your asthma may bother you when you least expect it to and you’ll need to take a fast-acting, quick-relief asthma medicine called albuterol (that opens up your airways so you can breathe easier). If your albuterol doesn’t make you feel better within 20 minutes, this means there is too much swelling or inflammation in your lungs – you should call your health care provider immediately, or call 911.

What kinds of medicines are used to treat asthma?

Some people need to take one or more types of medication daily for their asthma and others may not need to take any except when their asthma is bothersome. Your health care provider will decide what medications you need to take.

The two main components of asthma are bronchoconstriction – tightening of the muscles around your airways, and inflammation or swelling inside your airways.

Albuterol – also known as your “rescue” or “quick reliever” medicine will relax the muscles around your airways. There are 3 brands of albuterol – ProAir®, Proventil®, and Ventolin®. They all have the same ingredients and work the same way. Controller medications are medicines that you need to take every day to decrease the swelling in your airways. Controller medications can be inhalers such as Flovent®, Pulmicort®, Asmanex®, QVAR®, Alvesco®, Aerospan®, Advair®, Dulera®, Arnuity™, Breo® or Symbicort® or perhaps a pill such as montelukast or Singulair. Your health care provider will teach you how and when to use your medicine.

Click here for video tutorials How to’s of Asthma Devices from Boston Children’s Hospital.