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Division of Pulmonary Diseases and Critical Care Medicine

What is Asthma?

Asthma is a chronic lung condition that varies greatly from person to person. Symptoms range from mild to life threatening. Some people have only occasional or seasonal (Fall / Spring) symptoms. Others experience symptoms

on a daily basis. Many people experience ‘asthma attacks’ that appear to develop suddenly. These episodes may be brief or last for several days. It is important to recognize and treat even mild asthma symptoms to avoid a more serious episode. The key to controlling your asthma is early recognition of warning signs. These are signs that warn you your asthma is getting worse. You must then know how to get your asthma back in control by using your asthma control plan.

Asthma can be controlled or managed, but not cured. With proper treatment and self-management, you can control your symptoms, prevent most acute asthma exacerbations, maintain your desired activity level and have near-normal lung function. Your asthma is not adequately controlled until you can perform all of your daily activities, including exercise, without symptoms.

How common is asthma?

Asthma affects 3-5% of the U.S. population, approximately 10 million people. About the same number of men and women have asthma. A slightly higher number of blacks have asthma than whites. The reported number of cases of asthma is increasing. Asthma can be a major cause of time lost from school and work. It is the number one chronic illness responsible for loss of school time. In 1990, the cost of illness related to asthma in the U.S. exceeded six billion dollars. About half of this cost can be saved if individuals work with their physicians to control their asthma.

The number of reported deaths from asthma has increased from about 2,600 in 1979 to 4,600 in 1988. This increase in deaths may be due to inadequate health care, a change in the severity of asthma or an increase in the number of people with asthma. The asthma death rate is almost three times greater among blacks than whites. The majority of deaths are in individuals older than 50, but deaths caused by asthma are also reported in children.

How does the doctor know I have asthma?

Common asthma symptoms include periodic cough, wheezing, tightness in the chest, and shortness of breath. Asthma is sometimes hard to diagnose. To help, your doctor will rely on a combination of your medical history including your symptoms, pattern of symptoms, home situation, medical and family history, a physical exam, laboratory test, chest x-rays, breathing tests and sometimes allergy testing.

How is asthma treated?

Asthma treatment has improved over the past few years. The most important treatment is the development of an Asthma Control Plan. This includes checking your breathing and the looking for warning signs everyday. You must learn your asthma triggers, how to avoid them, how to prevent an asthma episode and control one if it starts. The control plan will also include taking your medicines everyday, learn how to use your medicine properly and how to adjust your medications based on your symptoms and peak flows. By learning more about asthma and developing an asthma control plan, you will gain control over your disease. Successful self-management with only periodic physician or nurse intervention is the ultimate goal.

Common Questions

See our Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) for answers to common asthma questions.

Changes to your Lungs

When asthma attacks, it causes changes to your lungs. Click here to see Pictures and Discussion


Current clinical trials

Contact Us

To make appointments or referrals to the UNC Pulmonary Clinic, please call: 919-966-7933.

Additional Resources

These links will take you to websites with more information on asthma:

  • AAAAI (for doctors and patients): American Academy of Asthma, Allergy, & Immunology