Managing asthma: What you need to know

Image of doctor talking to a pediatric patient about asthma

Asthma is a chronic lung illness with common symptoms such as wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath and chest tightness, as well as feeling weak during physical activity and general tiredness. When these symptoms suddenly get worse, it’s called an asthma attack.

Asthma is a common disorder in adults and children, and its prevalence is rising. The University of Chicago Medicine and Comer Children’s Hospital offer comprehensive programs to treat this chronic condition in adults, teens and children.

We spoke to asthma experts, including Romuald Warakomski, DO* and Michelle Cunningham, MD*, an internal medicine doctor and pediatrician respectively who have additional expertise in asthma, to answer common questions about asthma and offer tips for managing this condition.

How do you know if someone has asthma?

The only way to know if you or your child has asthma is to see a doctor. The doctor can diagnose asthma based on a comprehensive history and physical exam and may also obtain lung function testing.

Will my kids get asthma if I have it?

The cause of asthma is not known. Studies show there are environmental and hereditary factors that may predispose a person to developing the condition. That means if someone in your family has asthma, your child is more likely to have it, too.

How is asthma in adults different from asthma in children?

While asthma symptoms between adults and children can be very similar, there are important differences to be aware of.

Asthma in adults is found more often in women than men, whereas in childhood it is more common in boys than in girls.

Asthma symptoms are more consistent and likely to be more serious in adults, while in children they are periodic and may lessen as they enter puberty.

What is an asthma action plan?

This is a written plan that advises asthma patients on how and when to use all of their medications and what to do in an emergency. The patient’s family and those who see them regularly should each have a copy. If you or your child has asthma, talk to your doctor about getting an action plan.

What medications are used to manage asthma?

Most asthma action plans include both long-term and quick-relief medications. Long-term controller medications are given to help prevent airway swelling and mucus buildup. They must be taken every day in order to work. Quick-relief or rescue medications work fast to relax the muscles around the airway and are usually taken only when a patient’s asthma symptoms arise rather than every day.

What are common asthma triggers?

Asthma triggers can set off asthma symptoms and may differ between patients. Common triggers include:

Irritants that can trigger asthma include:

  • Aerosols such as hair or bug spray
  • Air pollution
  • Burning candles or incense
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Strong odors from perfumes, air fresheners or cleaning fluids

Asthma can also be brought on by cold air, exercise or even stress.

Can a child with asthma play sports?

Adults and teens with asthma can exercise and be physically active. Your doctor can provide guidelines for enjoying sports in your asthma action plan. Share this with coaches, teachers and those around you at the gym or sports center. Some tips for controlling asthma while playing sports are:

  • Know the asthma triggers and avoid exposure.
  • If physical activity is a trigger, use your inhaler 15-30 minutes prior to playing sports.
  • Exercise indoors when air pollution levels are high.
  • Wear a mask covering your nose and mouth when exercising or playing in cold weather. This helps moisten and warm the air you breathe.
  • Exercise slowly for the first 10-15 minutes. End exercise with a slow cool down activity such as walking or stretching.
  • Stop exercising or playing and use your quick-relief medication or a rescue inhaler if asthma symptoms appear.

*Romuald Warakomski, DO and Michelle Cunningham, MD are UChicago Medicine Medical Group providers. UChicago Medicine Medical Group is comprised of UCM Care Network Medical Group, Inc. and Primary Healthcare Associates, S.C. UChicago Medicine Medical Group providers are not employees or agents of The University of Chicago Medical Center, The University of Chicago, UChicago Medicine Medical Group - South Holland or UChicago Medicine at Ingalls - Tinley Park.

Romuald Warakomski

Romuald Warakomski, DO*

Romuald Warakomski, DO is a UChicago Medicine Medical Group provider and a board-certified internal medicine physician. Dr. Warakomski specializes in diagnosing and treating a wide range of health issues.

Learn more about Dr. Warakomski
Michelle Cunningham

Michelle Cunningham, MD*

Michelle Cunningham, MD is a UChicago Medicine Medical Group provider and a board-certified pediatrician. Dr. Cunningham provides comprehensive primary care to children ranging from infants to young adults and is especially interested in obesity prevention, asthma management and ADHD treatment.

Learn more about Dr. Cunningham