University Health Service

On this page:

What is asthma?

Asthma is a chronic condition that makes the lungs' airways swell and inflame. The muscles around the bronchial tubes in the lungs tighten, causing the airways to become sensitive and restricted. Thicker mucus is produced, which contributes to the narrowing of the airways in the lungs as well.

Symptoms of asthma may include:

  • Coughing, especially at night
  • Wheezing
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Impaired breathing (short, quick or noisy)

The frequency and intensity of these symptoms may vary from person to person. When these symptoms are exacerbated, it is called an asthma attack or asthma episode.

What triggers asthma?

  • Allergens such as mold, pollen, animal dander, dust-mites and cockroaches
  • Irritants such as:
    • Tobacco smoke
    • Scented products like perfumes
    • Pollution, especially the particulate matter (PM) that's found in smoke, smog and diesel exhaust fumes, which can be extremely hazardous to the lungs, especially when the PM is 2.5mm in diameter or smaller
  • Intense feelings like stress, laughter or crying because they can restrict airflow and impair normal breathing patterns
  • Food and alcohol due to the additives found in food and wine, like sulfites

For more information on triggers, see the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

How would I know If I have asthma?

If you suspect you (or someone in your care) has asthma, you should visit a clinician to get an accurate diagnosis. The clinician will do a number of tests to determine if you have asthma and to also make sure you are not mistaking asthma for something else.

You may be diagnosed with asthma if:

  • You have frequent periods of coughing, wheezing or shortness of breath
  • You get "chest colds" that take 10 or more days to recover
  • You have a family history of asthma or allergies

Asthma can range from mild to moderate to severe. For more information on diagnosis, see the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

How can I manage my asthma?

If you are diagnosed with asthma, you can do a lot to manage and control your symptoms.

There are two basic types of medications used to control asthma: short-term medications that provide quick relief during attacks and long-term medications that control asthma in general. For more information on medications, see the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

You can also manage your asthma by avoiding your triggers.

Avoid allergens and irritants like smoke and pets, if you know they make your asthma worse.

Maintain a clean living environment, with minimal dust and mold. Ask your roommate(s) to help, if applicable.

Monitor environmental changes and air quality in your area on a regular basis. You can use Enviroflash from, a free online service to get air quality updates for your location (including Ann Arbor) via email.

Beware of alcohol-medication interactions; drinking alcohol (for example wine) and taking medications (such as aspirin) can trigger asthma.

Be prepared for an attack. Have medications, medical contacts and emergency information readily available.

For developing your own plan for managing asthma, see Asthma Action Plan for college students from the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.

For more information:

University Health Service:

Mayo Clinic

National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute

Asthma Initiative of Michigan