Asthma Dictionary

Over the past two decades, we’ve seen tremendous progress in asthma patient care. As asthma care evolved in the United States, so has a new language, one intended to simplify communication and shorten the time required for patient education. For example, it is popular to refer to inhaled brochodilators as “rescue” inhalers, a colorful but dangerously misleading term while inhaled corticosteroids have been dubbed “controllers.”

Allergy & Asthma Network conducted focus groups with patients and health care professionals to find out where the disconnect was taking place. We found that jargon or slang interfered with doctors’ intended message.  In response, the Network has put together this Dictionary of Asthma. Using the correct terminology is safer and helps you better understand your condition and treatment options. 

Dictionary of Asthma

Anti-IgE: medication that blocks the production of IgE antibodies and interrupts allergic reactions

Anti-inflammatory: medication that reduces and prevents airway swelling and inflammation, the quiet part of asthma that’s always there but rarely noticed or felt; usually taken daily

Asthma Action Plan: a written set of instructions from your doctor that spells out how to treat your asthma daily, what to do when symptoms get worse, and how to handle situations such as exercise or when you have a cold or virus

Bronchodilator (BRON-ko-DY-lay-ter): medication that relaxes muscles around your airways and treats the noisy part of asthma: coughing, wheezing, choking and shortness of breath

  • Quick-relief (short-acting) bronchodilators work for 3-6 hours and should be used at the first sign of symptoms, before exercise and as directed by your doctor. 
  • Long-acting (12-hour) bronchodilators should be taken daily or twice-daily as prescribed, usually in conjunction with an inhaled corticosteroid. 
  • Anticholinergics are bronchodilators used to treat Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).

Bronchospasm: twitching and sudden constriction of the airways that causes noisy symptoms of asthma: coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath

Bronchoconstriction: narrowing and tightness of airways caused by inflammation

Corticosteroid (cor-tih-co-STER-oyd): the most effective anti-inflammatory medications for asthma

Combination medication: contains two medicines in one dose, usually a long-acting bronchodilator and an anti-inflammatory corticosteroid

Daily symptom diary: written record of symptoms, peak flow meter readings, and medications used; helps you see patterns of your disease, identify allergens and irritants that set off symptoms, and record questions for your health care team

Dry powder inhaler (DPI): device used for powdered medication; breathing in activates the device to release medication; easy to use and very effective as the tiny particles reach tiny airways

Fractional exhaled nitric oxide (FeNO): a test that measures exhaled nitric oxide and indicates airway inflammation

Holding chamber: a valved device that fits onto a metered-dose inhaler (MDI) to trap and suspend medication spray so user can inhale when ready or during 3-5 breaths; also directs medicine to where it is supposed to go, helping reduce amount of spray that hits tongue and inside cheeks

IgE: antibodies produced by the immune system that set off allergy symptoms

Leukotrienes (LOU-ka-try-eens): chemicals involved in immune responses that cause inflammation, swelling and tightening of the airways

Metered-dose inhaler (MDI): a pressurized device used to spray medicine for inhalation

Nebulizer (NEH-byuh-lye-zur): electric or battery-powered machine that turns liquid medicine into aerosol that can be inhaled

Peak flow meter: a handheld device that measures peak expiratory flow rate (PEFR), the maximum speed that you can force air out of the large airways of the lungs

Priming: releasing “test sprays” into the air from an inhaler, necessary before using MDI for the first time or after certain periods of non-use; ensure the correct amount of medication will be released

Spacer: device that fits onto an MDI inhaler (or is a built-in part of the MDI) that helps direct the flow of medicine into the back of your throat; user must coordinate spray with inhalation, as spacer does not trap particles

Spirometer (spy-RAW-meter): device that measures how much air you can push in and out of your lungs

Misleading Terms:

Using shorthand or slang to talk about asthma can be confusing. Reconsider the following terms:

Rescue inhaler: Don’t wait until you need “rescue” or are near death before using your quick-relief bronchodilator.

As needed: One person’s “Need it now” is another’s “Maybe later.” Get specific details on when to use each medication.

Controller medication: Most asthma medications “control” symptoms in one way or another. One medication alone may not give asthma patients full symptom control.

Mild or moderate asthma: All asthma is serious. Mild asthma symptoms can turn severe in a moment.

Outgrowing asthma:
Your child may have fewer or no asthma symptoms into teenage years, or may have a lifetime of asthma and allergy symptoms. Airways are always sensitive for life.

Puffer: Inhaler asthma medications don’t puff up or inflate your lungs.


For more information on Symptoms and Diagnosis: