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Heather Hanks
Written by Heather Hanks

Reviewed by Dr Angelica L Dumapit

What Is Asthma? 15 Answers To Help Improve Your Breathing

What is asthma? Read on to learn more about common questions and guidance to help you better manage your symptoms.

This article answers questions such as, "What is asthma?" It also highlights common remedies.

What is asthma? It sounds like a silly question, but if you or your family member is newly diagnosed, then you’ll want to learn all about it.

For people with asthma, the simple act of inhaling and exhaling can be an exhausting process. Characterized by “difficulty breathing,” asthma symptoms can range in severity from slight breathing problems to a life-threatening attack.

Here are 15 questions and answers to help you better answer the question, “What is asthma?”

1. What Is Asthma?

Asthma is characterized by difficulty breathing and shortness of breath.

Asthma is a chronic and long-term lung condition that affects the airways. This disease causes coughing, difficulty in breathing and wheezing because of swelling (inflammation), narrowing and mucus accumulation in the airways.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) uses the term Xiao-Chuan to describe asthma. Xiao (哮) is wheezing, Chuan (喘) is breathlessness, and they often go together.

In a healthy state, the inhaled qi (energy) by the lungs moves downward with coordination from the kidneys to hold it down. The mutual regulation by the lungs and kidneys facilitates normal respiration.

Asthma occurs when there is lung qi deficiency or kidney deficiency due to obstruction from phlegm (spleen deficiency) or wind.

2. How Common Is It?

Asthma is a prevalent disease in the United States. According to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 25 million Americans have asthma, which works out be around 1 in every 12 people. This number is on the rise, too, and it has cost the United States about $56 billion dollars in lost wages and medical treatment.

3. What Are The Causes And Symptoms?

There is often no single, direct cause. This chronic airway disease comes from an interplay of genetic causes and environmental triggers: 

  • This condition is also more common in individuals with a family history of atopic diseases encompassing asthma, allergic rhinitis, and eczema.  
  • Exposure to allergens, including indoor and outdoor pollution, chemical, fumes, molds, perfume, soaps, pollen, smoke, dust mites and other irritants increases the risk of asthma.
  • Overweight children and adults are more likely to have this disease.
  • Early life conditions like low birth weight, prematurity, exposure to tobacco smoke and other sources of air pollution. Viral respiratory infections can also affect an infant’s developing lungs, increasing the chances of this illness.
  • Certain illnesses, including the flu, sinusitis, or an upper respiratory tract infection, can also trigger an asthma attack.

4. What Is Asthma, According To TCM?

In TCM, there are six categories of external pathogens. This includes wind, heat, dampness, fire, dryness and cold.

Asthma arises from two combinations of pathogens: wind-cold and wind-heat. They are also responsible for two other common respiratory ailments: the common cold, and the flu. Other potential causes include an imbalanced diet and a deficiency of vital qi in the lungs, spleen, or kidneys.


Asthma presents symptoms with varying severity, intensity, and frequency. The common signs are:

  • Coughing, especially at night or when you are exercising
  • Wheezing (a whistling sound when breathing)
  • Difficulty in breathing 
  • Chest tightness

Patterns Of Symptoms

  • Asthma attacks that happen only when external factors (allergens, chilly air, exercise, laughing or crying) trigger it or when there is a viral respiratory infection (like the flu or common cold)
  • Symptoms that come and go throughout the day
  • Severe asthma followed by an extended symptom-free period
  • Symptoms that tend to occur at specific times (for example, late at night or early in the morning)

TCM highlights five types of asthma: cold-type, heat-type, heat enveloped by cold, wind-phlegm, and deficient-type. Each of these has its own symptoms and treatment plan.

5. Why Do Asthma Attacks Occur Early In The Morning Or Late At Night?

This might be due to higher inhalation of house dust mites (from the bed and pillows), gravity pressing on the chest when lying down (putting extra pressure on the lungs), or lower natural steroid hormones at night, causing swelling and narrowing of the airways.

6. How Is It Diagnosed?

A doctor usually diagnoses asthma by getting a good clinical history and examination. Additionally, they may also perform a lung function test.

  • Medical history: The doctor will ask about your family history of allergies, risk factors, and the frequency and pattern of your symptoms.
  • Physical exam: The doctor checks your breathing to look for signs like wheezing, swollen nasal passages, and skin allergy (eczema, for example).
  • Lung function test: This test, also known as spirometry, assesses your lung condition. It is a simple test that requires you to breathe into a spirometer. The device will then record the amount and speed of air when you inhale and exhale.

In a TCM consultation, the physician will first identify the type of asthma afflicting the patient and the individual’s body constitution to determine a proper treatment protocol.

7. What Are My Treatment Options?

A doctor or TCM physician can help you pick out the best treatment plan for you or your child.

Treatment of this condition aims to control the symptoms (shortness of breath, wheezing and coughing) and reduce the risk of permanent damage to the airways. Medical treatments include:

  • Inhalers containing bronchial dilators (medication to enlarge the airways): these are emergency medications
  • Inhalers containing corticosteroids (medication to reduce inflammation): for long term control
  • Avoiding triggers whenever possible

Asthma treatment can also consist of a complementary protocol of TCM therapies and western medicine. Herbal formulations and TCM therapies like acupuncture, moxibustion, and tuina help alleviate symptoms and boost the immune system to reduce asthma attacks.

8. Are Inhalers Better Than Oral Medication?

A combination of both is best. Oral medications produce more side effects than inhalers. However, sometimes patients can’t use inhalers correctly, so they don’t get the full effect of an inhaler. Thus, using oral medications with inhalers can really help a patient breathe easier.

9. Can I Get Addicted To Medications?

No, individuals with asthma will not be dependent on the medications. Using an increasing amount of the medications is usually due to poor control of the disease.

10. How Do I Get Good Control Of Asthma?

When an individual shows no symptoms on most days and doesn’t require a rescue or emergency inhaler four or more times a week, sleeps well, doesn’t miss school or work, and is able to exercise without coughing or wheezing, it is a sign of good control of this condition. Also, avoiding triggers that can cause asthma is a good way to gain control.

11. What Foods Should I Avoid?

There is no scientific evidence of food contributing to symptoms. However, TCM recommends avoiding excessive sweet and fatty foods.

12. Can People With Asthma Exercise?

In this guide, you'll learn what is asthma as well as answers to common questions that can help you better understand this condition.
Be sure to bring your medication or inhaler with you if you plan on exercising with asthma.

Yes, if they have good control of their symptoms. Many athletes, especially swimmers, had this disease when they were young yet still excelled in sports.

13. What Are Some Alternative Treatment Options?

While there has been insufficient scientific research to support the use of alternative medications in this disease, studies investigating TCM herbs and formulas for their anti-allergic effects are now increasing.

According to a study in “Traditional Chinese herbal remedies for Asthma and Food Allergy” by Xiu-Min Li, MD, controlled clinical trials with anti-asthma TCM formulas are efficacious and safe alternatives or complements to standard western therapy for this illness. The study also pointed out potential herbal remedies that are effective in treating allergic asthma and food allergy.

14. Is There A Cure?

There is no known cure for this lung condition, but there are ways to control it with the right management strategy. In TCM, managing the symptoms focuses on strengthening the body’s natural resistance to triggers, alleviating the symptoms, and improving general well-being.

TCM remedies can support medical treatments for asthma. A study in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine notes that for patients with allergic asthma, “Additional acupuncture treatment to routine care was associated with increased disease-specific and health-related quality of life compared to treatment with routine care alone.”

You can also consider taking natural food products to relieve symptoms like coughing and phlegm to complement a healthy diet. Additionally, you may want to consider taking herbs and products that help improve lung function, such as bird’s nest and lung strengthening soup with ginseng.

15. Can Children Really Outgrow Asthma?

According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, approximately 50% of children with this condition outgrow it. However, the symptoms may return later in life. Some may not completely grow out of it, but symptoms will decrease significantly. Currently, there isn’t a definite way to predict if childhood asthma symptoms will or won’t disappear.

If you still have questions about what is asthma and how to manage it, consult a doctor to get a proper diagnosis and treatment plan. This way, you can find the best course of action to manage this condition that will lead to a wholesome life.

This is an adaptation of an article, “哮喘是什么?“, which first appeared on Health 123 website.


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