NC State Extension Publications

What Is Asthma?

Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disorder of the airways. It is a treatable, but not yet curable condition. According to the Center for Disease Control (2012), almost 19 million adults and nearly 7 million children have asthma.

Some people are at greater risk for asthma, including children, some minorities, individuals with allergies, and people with a genetic predisposition for asthma.

Diverse Hands Holding The Word Asthma

Warning Signs of an Asthma Episode

There are a number of indications that you or your child may be having an asthma episode. These signs include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Wheezing
  • Coughing

It's important to recognize these symptoms and address them as quickly as possible with medication. This may help lessen the severity of the episode. Never ignore symptoms, as doing so can have serious health consequences, including death.

asthma symptoms

Pay Attention to Asthma and Allergy Triggers

Know what triggers you or your child’s asthma or allergies. Common asthma triggers include allergens and irritants.

Common allergens that can trigger an asthma episode are:

  • molds
  • dust
  • animals
  • pollen
  • food
  • pests

Irritants that may trigger asthma include:

  • secondhand smoke
  • strong odors
  • ozone
  • chemical or cleaning compounds

Other asthma triggers include viral respiratory infections, exercise, and changes in weather.

Be certain to talk to a doctor or nurse about keeping emergency medicine around if your asthma or allergies are severe. If someone you love takes asthma or allergy medications make sure they know when to take it.

boy using asthma inhaler

Healthy Housekeeping

Clean your home often. Since cleaning puts dust into the air, have someone without asthma or allergies clean. Wear a dust mask if you can’t find someone to help you. If you have asthma and must clean, experts recommend wearing a dust mask with an N-95 rating and dispose of it at the end of the day. You can buy one at a drug store, home center, or hardware store.

Keep clutter down. Clutter collects dust and makes it harder to keep a clean home. Store your belongings in plastic or cardboard boxes instead of keeping them in piles and stacks. You can move the boxes to make cleaning easier.

When possible, eliminate carpeting or rugs. Hard floors (vinyl, wood, or tile) are much easier to keep dust-free. If you do have rugs or carpet, vacuum often. You may be able to borrow or buy a vacuum with a special HEPA (High Efficiency Particle Air) filter to get rid of dust.

cleaning supplies

Control Dust Mites

Use zippered plastic mattress and pillow covers beneath sheets and pillowcases. You can buy them at your local department store or through the mail. If the mattress cover is uncomfortable, put a mattress pad over it.

Wash bedding including blankets, pillow covers, and mattress pads in hot water every week and dry at high temperatures. Temperatures above 130°F kill dust mites.

dust mite

Control Other Pests

Roaches and rodents can trigger asthma and allergies. They need food, water, warmth, and shelter to survive. You can control roaches, mice and other pests by making these things hard to get. Here are some tips to keep pests away:

  • Store food in tightly concealed containers.
  • Clean up crumbs and spills right away.
  • Empty your garbage often.
  • Wash your dirty dishes right after eating.
  • Don’t leave out pet food or water overnight.
  • Seal cracks where roaches and other bugs hide or get into your home.


Furry pets like dogs, cats, and gerbils can cause asthma and allergy attacks because of their saliva and skin flakes. If you have asthma, it is best to either not have pets or keep them outside. If you do have pets inside, make sure to keep them out of sleeping areas and off fabric-covered furniture.


Check Your Appliances

Don't forget to have your appliances checked. Improper maintenance and care can contribute to asthma episodes.

  1. Make sure your gas appliances, fireplace, furnace, or wood-burning stove have yearly checkups to keep down soot and protect you from the dangers of carbon monoxide.
  2. Check the filter on your furnace or air conditioner a couple times each year (fall and spring). Change the filter when needed.
  3. Think about buying filters that cost a little more than the most economical ones. The pleated filters with medium grade 8 are recommended. These filters will clean the air in your home better. They trap more dust so you will need to change them more often; follow the manufacturer’s recommendations. You can buy air filters at a hardware store or home center. Check labels and packaging to find out about these products. If you rent, talk to your landlord about these steps.
  4. Air cleaners help in the bedrooms of allergy and asthma patients.
  5. Good air cleaners (with HEPA filters) cost about $100 or so. DO NOT use an air cleaner that makes ozone because ozone can cause health problems.
air filter

Smoking Awareness

Secondhand smoke can contribute to asthma episodes. Cigarette, cigar, or pipe smoke causes health problems, especially for people with asthma. If at all possible, quit smoking. Contact the American Lung Association at (800) LUNG-USA for help. If you can't quit, smoke outside and away from children. Don’t smoke in your car, because smoke will linger there and affect children.



When people breathe in mold, it can cause allergic reactions and asthma can be triggered. Mold needs water to grow. Keep your home dry to control mold. If you have mold and moisture issues, it is important to identify the source of moisture, correct or eliminate that source, and then clean up the mold. If you clean without correcting, the mold will return.



Professor and Department Extension Leader
Agricultural and Human Sciences

Publication date: July 24, 2014

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