Common Asthma Terms
Action plan: A written set of directions or a chart that tells you what to do if asthma symptoms occur, depending on their severity. Your action plan also should tell you what to do when you do NOT feel any symptoms (i.e., preventive care).
Albuterol: An asthma medication (see short-acting beta-agonist).
Allergic asthma: A chronic, inflammatory disorder of the airways characterized by wheezing, breathing difficulties, coughing, chest tightness, wherein these symptoms are caused by an allergic reaction to an inhaled allergen, rather than an irritant or other non-allergy factor. (See “non-allergic asthma” for more information.)
Allergen: A substance that triggers an allergic reaction. Many allergens are responsible for triggering asthma, including dust mites, animal dander, mold, and cockroaches.
Allergist: A doctor that has specific training in the care of asthma and in some cases may be more familiar with current clinical guidelines than a pediatrician or general practitioner.
Alveoli: Tiny air sacs where oxygen is transferred into your lungs and carbon dioxide waste enters the airways in order to be exhaled out.
Asthma: A chronic, inflammatory disorder of the airways characterized by wheezing, breathing difficulties, coughing, chest tightness, and other possible symptoms. People with asthma have very sensitive airways that are constantly on the verge of over-reacting to asthma triggers.
Beta-agonists: Asthma drugs that relax the muscles around the bronchial tubes (“bronchodilators”), thus opening the airways or helping keep them open. There are two main types. The long-acting type is taken every day to prevent symptoms, often in combination with a steroid. The short-acting type is used for quick relief of symptoms during an asthma episode/attack. Albuterol is the most commonly used short-acting beta-agonist.
Bronchial tubes: Airways in the lungs. There is one major branch going into each lung, and these then divide into many smaller branches.
Bronchioles: The smallest airways in the lungs.
Bronchoconstriction: This is when the muscles that wrap the airways constrict tighter and tighter, pinching the airways closed.
Bronchodilators: Drugs that relax the muscles around the airways, thus opening the airways up. Some bronchodilators are used for quick relief of symptoms during an asthma attack. Others are taken every day to prevent symptoms.
Control drug: A drug that some people take on a daily basis to prevent asthma symptoms and asthma attacks.
Corticosteroids: The most common and effective drugs used for long-term daily control of asthma (prevention of symptoms). They are most frequently inhaled using either a metered dose inhaler, dry powder inhaler, or nebulizer. Corticosteroids primarily decrease or prevent inflammation.
Cromolyn: An anti-inflammatory drug that may be used on a daily basis to prevent symptoms of asthma.
Dry Powder Inhaler: A small device similar to a metered dose inhaler, but where the drug is in powder form. The patient exhales out a full breath, places the lips around the mouthpiece, then quickly breathes in the powder.
Holding chamber: See Spacer.
Immunotherapy: A series of shots that help build up the immune system’s tolerance to an asthma trigger.
Ipratropium bromide: A bronchodilator sometimes used for quick relief of asthma symptoms, often for people who do not tolerate beta-agonists. It is also used for people whose asthma is triggered by beta-blocker medication for the heart.
Leukotriene modifiers: A class of medications used in asthma and allergies to block the action of leukotrienes in the body and prevent the common symptoms of an allergic reactions and asthma. These are considered “control” medications in the form of tablets for patients with mild to moderate persistent asthma. For mild asthma, they are sometimes considered as an alternative to inhaled steroids. For moderate asthma, they may be considered as a supplement to inhaled steroids in place of long-acting beta agonists.
Metered dose inhaler: The most common device people use to take asthma medication. An MDI allows you to inhale a specific amount of medicine (a “metered dose”). It consists of a metal canister, which keeps the medication under pressure, and a plastic sleeve, which helps to release the medication. When you press the canister, medicine particles are propelled toward your throat where you can inhale them.
Nebulizer: A device that creates a mist out of your asthma drug, which makes it easy and pleasant to breath the drug into the lungs. The drug is placed into a small cup. Air from a small compressor converts the drug into an aerosol mist, which travels through a hose with a mouthpiece attached. By taking slow, deep breaths, the medicine is delivered into your lungs.
Nedocromil sodium: An inhaled medication that may be used on a daily basis to treat inflammation in the airways and prevent asthma attacks.
Non-allergic asthma: A chronic, inflammatory disorder of the airways characterized by wheezing, breathing difficulties, coughing, chest tightness, wherein these symptoms are caused by an inhaled irritant or other non-allergy factor; when these symptoms are not caused by allergic reactions. (See “allergic asthma” for more information.)
Peak flow: A measurement of how well you can blow air out of your lungs. If your airways become narrow and blocked due to asthma, you can’t blow air out as well, and your peak flow values drop.
Relief drug: A drug used as needed to relieve asthma symptoms during asthma attacks. Also called a quick-relief or rescue drug.
Rescue drug: Relief or quick-relief drug.
Sinusitis: An inflammation or infection of one or more sinuses. The sinuses are hollow air spaces located around the nose and eyes.
Spacer: This works with your MDI to deliver medication more easily and effectively, and can reduce side effects. When you use an MDI by itself, more of the medicine is left in your mouth and throat, wasting your dose and causing an unpleasant aftertaste. Spacers hold the medicine between you and the MDI, so that you can inhale it slowly and more completely. Spacers are also called holding chambers.
Spirometry: Test for diagnosing asthma. A spirometer is an instrument that measures the maximum volume you can exhale after breathing in as much as you can. Small spirometers are available for home use, although peak flow meters are more appropriate for most people.
Steroids: See Corticosteroids.
Theophylline: This drug is sometimes used to help control mild asthma, especially to prevent nighttime symptoms. The drug works by relaxing the muscles of your bronchial tubes.