Asthma is a long-term problem in the tubes that carry air into your lungs that can make it hard for you to breathe. These airways get so narrow that air can’t move freely. It can cause serious wheezing and breathlessness, known as asthma attacks. There’s no cure, but most people can control their symptoms.
The number of people with asthma has been going up steadily in the U.S. for decades. Some researchers suggest it’s because of better hygiene: The theory is that fewer childhood infections lead to under-developed immune systems, which means a greater risk of asthma. It might also be because we use more household cleaning sprays, we don’t use as much aspirin, or we have lower levels of vitamin D.
Certain triggers can make inflammation in your airways worse. The swelling makes the space inside smaller. At the same time, your body may make extra mucus that clogs those airways. It’s really hard for air to get in and out of your lungs, so you wheeze and struggle to breathe.
The problem is dander — dead skin cells from your pet that collect on clothing, furniture, and walls. When you breathe it in, it can trigger an asthma attack in as little as 15 minutes.
People with cat allergies react to a protein in the saliva, skin, and urine. This protein builds up in the air or on surfaces and can trigger asthma attacks in some people with asthma.
Most people with asthma can manage their condition and get rid of most of their symptoms. The key is to work with your doctor to come up with a treatment strategy, called an asthma action plan. It should identify your triggers, list your daily medications, and outline what to do when you have a flare-up. You can revisit your plan and adjust it when you need to.
It’s the first step to manage your asthma. You may need to stay indoors when the smog index is high or get special bedding to combat dust mites. The most effective way to fight allergens in your home is to remove their sources and places they gather. That can include pets, carpets, and upholstered furniture. Dust regularly and use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter.
It’s virtually impossible for someone with asthma to avoid all of their triggers all the time. Many people need to take medicine every day to prevent asthma attacks. Drugs called corticosteroids that you breathe directly into your lungs are the most common. They work by bringing down inflammation in your airways, which makes them less sensitive to allergens and irritants in the air.
Even when you use long-term medication, asthma symptoms sometimes flare up. Rescue inhalers usually have drugs called short-acting beta2-agonists. They quickly relax the tightened muscles around your airways, so air can flow in and out of your lungs. This medication works for most asthma attacks, so you don’t have to go to the hospital.