The Asthma (Counter) Attack

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MAY is Asthma and Allergy Awareness Month. Knowing triggers and having an action plan can help control your asthma.

Patient learns the correct use of asthma inhaler.
Patient learns the correct use of asthma inhaler.

Seven-year-old Michael’s home was literally making him sick.

The young Flint, Michigan boy was a frequent visitor to the emergency room and doctor’s office. In one school year, he was out sick for a combined total of nine weeks.

Everyone else who lived in Michael’s home felt fine. The home had no effect on their health. Nonetheless, it was not a good environment for Michael’s asthma.

Asthma is a serious problem and the number of people affected continues to grow. NCEH says that the proportion of people living in the United States with asthma grew nearly 15% in the last decade.

CDC figures for 2011 reveal that 18.9 million adults in the United States had asthma, or 1 in every 12 adults. Although the numbers are lower for children, asthma is still a major problem. In 2011, about 7.1 million children in the United States had asthma, which represents about 1 in every 11 children.

NCEH helps the millions of people with asthma in the United States gain control over their disease.

Scott Damon, a health communication specialist with NCEH, says asthma is incurable. “If you’ve got it, then you always have it,” Damon says. “A lot of people think you grow out of it.”

Mold is a common asthma trigger.
Mold is a common asthma trigger.

However, Damon says that asthma can be controlled and that one key to controlling asthma is knowing what can trigger an asthma attack. Damon says asthma affects everyone differently; so no two people will have the same asthma triggers.

“There are lots of different triggers,” he said.

An asthma trigger can be something indoors or outdoors. Some common indoor asthma triggers are dust mites, cockroach droppings, and mold. In 7-year-old Michael’s case, mold was the culprit.

Damon says it’s important for people with asthma not only to know their triggers, but also to use their asthma medication properly and to have an action plan to know how to control their asthma and what to do when an asthma attack occurs. Dan Burrows, an NCEH lead public health advisor who has asthma himself, agrees.

“You can’t really prevent asthma, but you learn to control asthma and reduce triggers in your environment,” Burrows says. “Asthma has genetic components and environmental components.”

A Snapshot of Asthma

Asthma affects the lungs, with the most severe symptoms occurring during an asthma attack.

Air pollution, tobacco smoke, dust mites, cockroach droppings, mold, respiratory infections from a cold or flu, pet dander, physical activity, fragrances, bad weather and other factors can trigger an asthma attack.

Asthma Attack
During an asthma attack, the muscles that surround the airways to your lungs tighten, and the linings of the air passages swell. This reduces the amount of air that can get to your lungs. You’ll experience tightness in your chest, coughing, wheezing, and breathing problems.

An asthma inhaler can provide quick relief. An inhaler is a handheld device that sends a rush of medicine to a person’s lungs in the form of a mist. More serious cases require hospitalization. Asthma medicines also come in pills, which are often taken for long-term asthma control.

Burrows works in NCEH’s National Asthma Control Program (NACP). This environmental health program provides funding to cities, schools, and non-government organizations to address asthma. Currently, health departments in 34 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico receive funding through NACP. Each of these departments sets up a program to track and monitor asthma, establish partnerships, develop a strategic asthma plan, and implement interventions such as health professionals training and education for the public, patients, and their families.

NACP-funded programs have contributed to development of policies that have reduced air pollution, improved asthma management and trigger reduction in schools, improved the quality of asthma care through education of health providers, and supported self-management education for people living with asthma.

In Michael’s area, a case worker with the Genesee County “Managing Asthma Through Case Management in Homes” (MATCH) program did an evaluation of his home. Mold was found in bathroom walls and floor boards. A furnace also needed repair.

MATCH worked with local contractors to replace the furnace and remediate the mold. The bathroom walls were also replaced and new floors were installed.

Michael’s entire family was taught asthma self-management skills. After MATCH’s intervention, Michael’s health improved dramatically.

The 7-year-old boy rarely visits the emergency room or misses school. And he’s now active in sports.

For more information about asthma, visit and to learn more about NCEH’s work, visit our National Asthma Control Program website.

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Page last reviewed: July 9, 2015
Page last updated: July 9, 2015