Tips on Managing Asthma

Asthma can be particularly difficult to manage. More than 3 million people in Canada currently suffer from asthma, and 60 per cent of those with asthma have poorly controlled asthma.

What is asthma?

Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disease of the airways. There is no cure, but it can be treated and prevented. Some symptoms of an acute asthma attack can include wheezing, coughing (especially at night), shortness of breath, and chest tightness or pain.

Below are some steps to take to ensure you take control of your asthma.

1. Confirmation

First, confirm your diagnosis - without a firm diagnosis, you may be taking your medication unnecessarily. A physician or respirologist can confirm a diagnosis using a spirometer and assess the severity of the disease - it is used for children six years of age or older only.

2. Education

Asthma education is essential in maintaining control of your asthma. If you need more information about your condition, you can always consult your pharmacist or physician. One major area of confusion for patients is the difference between an asthma reliever and a controller. These two inhalers have different purposes and are therefore used differently.

  • Reliever (rescuer): Relievers (e.g. salbutamol) should only be used as needed for shortness of breath as they provide rapid relief, but they don’t reduce inflammation or control your condition.  Increasing the use of a reliever can suggest uncontrolled asthma. 
  • Controller (maintenance): Controllers (e.g. fluticasone or montelukast) maintain asthma control by reducing inflammation, and are used daily as directed by your physician. Adherence is important - do not stop if your symptoms disappear - inflammation can return if stopped. As well, ensure you understand how to use your inhaler correctly. If there is any confusion or concern with your medication, you can clarify with your physician or pharmacist.

3. Preparation

Although it is important to control your asthma, it is just as important to know signs of a worsening condition and how to manage this. Speak to your pharmacist or physician about an Action Plan. An Action Plan will:

  • Contain information on your medication and triggers.
  • Define the criteria for “controlled” (green) and “uncontrolled” (yellow) asthma.
  • Define the signs that require you to seek immediate medical help (red). 

4. Prevention

Minimize and reduce asthma attacks by preventing them:

  1. Avoid or reduce exposure to triggers, e.g. dust mites, animal allergens, cockroaches, mold (indoor triggers); pollen, pollution, tobacco smoke, cold weather (outdoor triggers); paint fumes, household sprays (occupation triggers). 
  2. If triggers are unknown or symptoms worsen, consider using an asthma diary in which you will record what symptoms you experience and when, and record your use of asthma medication.
  3. Avoid smoke - if you smoke, consider smoking cessation or reduction programs. If you or your child are exposed to secondhand smoke from others, consider limiting this exposure.
  4. Get the annual influenza vaccine - the flu can exacerbate asthma symptoms, so it is important to get the flu shot every year!

5. Physical Activity

Maintaining your normal activity and exercise levels is important in patients with asthma. Having no symptoms while exercising also ensures your asthma is under control!

  • Consult with your doctor or physician on how to best exercise with asthma management. Take your controller medication prior to starting exercise if advised. If you develop symptoms while exercising, stop, rest, and take your reliever. 
  • Limit exposure to triggers. If it’s cold outside or if you’re exposed to triggers such as pollen, consider exercising indoors instead.
  • If you experience symptoms within 5 to 10 minutes after starting physical activity, it may be exercise-induced asthma (EIA). Talk to your physician to confirm the diagnosis of EIA and how to manage activity.

Additional Resources:

-          Asthma Society of Canada:

-          Lung Association:

-          CDC:

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