Woman holds an asthma inhaler.

Asthma: Understanding the Disease and Its Disparities

Asthma is a chronic condition that causes your airways to become swollen and inflamed, making it hard to breathe. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), asthma is one of the most common diseases with more than 25 million people in the United States diagnosed with it. Although asthma affects people of all ages and backgrounds, data from the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) shows that asthma disproportionately impacts certain racial and ethnic minorities.

With asthma’s prevalence and heavy impact on certain communities, it’s important to learn more about asthma, the health disparities associated with it and effective ways to manage it.

Asthma rates are higher for Puerto Ricans, Black Americans, American Indians and Alaska Native people. Studies show these groups suffer higher rates of asthma, as well as more emergency room visits, hospitalizations and higher mortality rates.

With asthma’s prevalence and heavy impact on certain communities, it’s important to learn more about asthma, the health disparities associated with it and effective ways to manage it.

Asthma Symptoms and Diagnosis

Symptoms can appear when you’re exposed to a trigger or something that inflames your airways. Triggers can cause swelling, increased mucus production, and narrowing in your airways. According to the CDC, allergy triggers can include exercise, smoke, dust mites, stress, pollen, air pollution, animal allergies, certain gases, cold weather, respiratory illnesses and more.

Common asthma symptoms include:

  • Woman using asthma inhaler outdoors.Coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Activity limitation
  • Exhaustion

Your health care provider can diagnose asthma through a combination of tests. After reviewing your medical history details, your health care provider may recommend one of the following:

  • Chest or sinus X-ray
  • Lung function tests
  • Physical exam
  • Allergy tests
  • Blood tests

Based on these test results, your health care provider can determine what type of asthma you have and work with you to develop a treatment plan. Your health care provider may also suggest you see a pulmonologist or an allergist.

Asthma Disparities

Disparities exist throughout our health care system, causing differences in the prevalence and mortality of diseases among certain population groups. Data from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases shows that racial and ethnic minorities continue to bear more of the burden for diseases such as COVID-19, HIV, diabetes and more. These disparities, also found in asthma rates and outcomes, cannot be boiled down to any one factor or explanation. For asthma, experts from AAFA believe a wide number of factors contribute to the disparities, including:

  • Indoor and outdoor air quality and air pollution, especially in urban areas
  • Smoke exposure
  • Access to health care
  • Exposure to stress
  • Lack of insurance coverage
  • Coexisting illnesses such as obesity and depression
  • Mistrust of the health care system and fear of over-medication
  • Socioeconomic status

These factors and others can all contribute in different ways. For example, AAFA studies show minority patients have lower rates of medication adherence, which may be linked to a distrust of the health care system or a fear of being overmedicated. In addition, poverty rates, which are higher among certain minority groups, may make insurance coverage more difficult. Without insurance, it can be challenging to get a proper diagnosis, adhere to treatment or fill a prescription. Racial and ethnic minorities may also live in areas with increased air pollution and smoke exposure.

Experts from AAFA and other organizations believe some of these health disparities can be reduced through education. Being aware of these disparities can ensure you understand your own risk level and the factors that may impact your health if you’re diagnosed with asthma.

Asthma Management

Asthma inhalers and nebulizers.While there is no cure for asthma, there are several effective ways to manage and treat it. If you’ve been diagnosed with asthma, you can live a full and healthy life when it’s properly managed. However, it’s important to understand that asthma can also be very dangerous if it’s not controlled or treated properly according to the American Lung Association.

Here are some tips to consider:

  • Follow your treatment plan. You and your health care team should come up with a treatment plan designed to control your asthma. Your plan will most likely involve taking medications to prevent symptoms and using something to treat your asthma, such as an inhaler, if you have an episode or attack, for quick relief. Take your medications as prescribed, both for allergies and asthma.
  • Learn your triggers and avoid exposure to them as much as possible. For example, if you’re allergic to a cat or dog, ask friends and family to keep their pets away from you. Try to avoid smoke exposure if this brings on your asthma symptoms. Wear a mask around sick people if you’re triggered by a respiratory illness.
  • Have quick-acting medicine to use when necessary. These are often called “rescue drugs” and include inhalers to help you breathe during an asthma attack. Talk to your health care provider about how and when to use the medicine and be sure to have it on hand (keep your prescription filled, bring it along when you travel, etc.).
  • Get enough exercise. While certain activities can cause the onset of asthma symptoms, physical activity in general is important to the overall health of your lungs. Talk to your health care provider about ways to be active, strengthen your lungs and stay safe.
  • Keep your house clean. Every house has dust mites, but these can be problematic for asthma sufferers. Try to regularly dust your furniture, vacuum your carpets, and wash your sheets and pillowcases once a week.
  • Pay attention to air quality. You can keep track of pollen, ozone and pollution levels and try to stay indoors on days when they’re too high or unhealthy for your lungs. AirNow.gov allows you to search by ZIP code to learn about the air quality in your area.
  • Understand your asthma and your treatments. Make sure you know all about your condition. Why are you taking certain medications? How do they work? What symptoms should you look out for? When should you seek medical help? Having a good understanding of your plan will make it more likely you’ll adhere to it. If you have questions or are hesitant about the treatment, talk to your health care provider and voice your concerns.
  • Take an active role in your health care. Your asthma treatment plan may need to be adjusted as time goes on. Keep track of your symptoms and how your asthma impacts your life. For example, if you’re consistently relying on your inhaler, your treatment plan may not be effective. Meet with your health care provider regularly and make changes as needed.
  • Take a whole health approach. Asthma, like many other chronic conditions, is managed better when your overall health and wellness is addressed. Maintaining a healthy weight, staying up to date with your vaccinations (especially pneumonia and influenza), and keeping regular appointments with your health care provider can all impact your asthma management.


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