Asthma guide: Causes, triggers & how COVID-19 factors in

More than half a million Tennesseans live with asthma. In a normal year, that presents challenges when it comes to exercising outside, traveling and even diet. In an abnormal year, it brings up new questions, especially about COVID-19.

“The good news is that patients who have asthma are at no higher risk of getting infected than anybody else,” says Dr. Daniel Cusator, a medical director in care management for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. “In general, they should take the same precautions as the rest of us.”

“However, people who suffer from asthma know that respiratory viruses — influenza, RSV [respiratory syncytial virus] and the common cold — can trigger their symptoms, and COVID-19 is a respiratory virus. So it’s a good idea for people to continue taking their medications as prescribed and contact their doctor immediately if they notice any changes in their asthma symptoms.”

What you need to know about asthma now

What is asthma?

In the simplest terms, asthma is a chronic respiratory condition characterized by inflammation and airflow obstruction.

“If you have asthma, the bronchial tubes that carry air to and from your lungs are hyperresponsive,” says Dr. Cusator. “They overreact to stimuli or triggers that a person who doesn’t have asthma would have no reaction to, and that causes airflow obstruction.”

What are the symptoms of an asthma attack?

People with asthma will show one or more of the following symptoms:

  1. Dry cough (more prevalent at night than during day)
  2. Wheezing (air flowing in and out of narrowed bronchial tubes)
  3. Shortness of breath

What causes an asthma attack?

Common triggers of an asthma attack include:

  • Exercise
  • Cold air or other changes in the weather
  • Air pollution, airborne chemicals or fumes, dust
  • Exposure to allergens such as dust mites, mold, pollen or pet fur
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Viral infections
  • Chemicals used in the construction of certain build buildings

Are there varying degrees of asthma?

Yes. People with mild asthma may be able to manage their condition with occasional inhaler use, while people with severe asthma may experience respiratory arrest to the point they can’t breathe. That type of asthma can become life-threatening if not properly treated.

How is asthma diagnosed?

Asthma is characterized by 4 things:

  1. Airflow obstruction
  2. Bronchial tube hyperresponsiveness (overreactivity)
  3. Underlying inflammation (inflammation that occurs naturally in your body)
  4. Variable and recurring symptoms

The word “variable” is important. In order to be diagnosed with asthma, your symptoms must happen again and again over time, but those symptoms vary from person to person. Some people may only experience shortness of breath while others will only experience wheezing. That’s why tracking your symptoms over time is important if you think you may have asthma.

How do you manage asthma?

“Asthma is one condition that really relies on individuals for self-management,” says Dr. Cusator. “If patients take responsibility for their own care in partnership with their physician, they can learn to manage it and take control.”

The 3 key steps to managing asthma are:

  1. Avoiding triggers
  2. Monitoring your lung function
  3. Sticking to your treatment plan

“There are so many devices to help us measure lung function now,” says Dr. Cusator. “And if you always have your medication on hand and maintain a good relationship with your primary care provider, asthma is very manageable most of the time.”

For more WellTuned articles on asthma, click here.

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

More Posts - LinkedIn

Get more information about specific health terms, topics and conditions to better manage your health on BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee members can access wellness-related discounts on fitness products, gym memberships, healthy eating and more through Blue365®. BCBST members can also find tools and resources to help improve health and well-being by logging into BlueAccess and going to the Managing Your Health tab.

Filed under: Health Topics


Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).