Medical terms explainer – 14 common asthma terms and what they mean

Facts | 8/9/2021
Medical terms explainer – 14 common asthma terms and what they mean
Do you find some medical terms hard to understand? ? Our simple explainer covers some general asthma facts plus lists some common asthma keywords and tells why they’re important.

Around the world, asthma is one of the most common non-communicable conditions among children, and it’s on the rise generally – so if you or your family member has it, you are certainly not alone. Being non-communicable, you can’t catch asthma from someone else or pass it on to anyone. While asthma is very common, we still don’t know exactly why some people develop it. Experts think that both environmental factors (in particular the air that we breathe) and our genes (if our relatives have asthma), are likely to play a part in whether or not we develop it.

While asthma is a chronic condition, meaning it can’t be cured, the good news is that experts have been researching it for decades, so there are some very effective ways to manage the symptoms. In some cases, getting an asthma diagnosis may be a relief, as it helps to understand the reasons for your symptoms. Getting a diagnosis also means you can get advice and medication to help you stay healthy and breathe easier.

A long-term inflammatory disease of the airways. Having asthma means that your airways and lungs aren’t working as well as they could. This causes variable and recurring symptoms and airflow obstruction (see below). In addition, lungs or airways may be irritated, inflamed, or swollen, and may also produce extra mucus. This can result in difficulty breathing or other symptoms, such as bronchospasms (see below).

Airway obstruction: When something restricts the air from moving in and out of the airways.

Allergens: Things that you are allergic to. Airborne allergens, in particular, may cause an asthma flare-up for some people, especially animal dander (microscopic skin flakes), pollens (from plants or flowers), or even perfumes.

Anti-inflammatory: A type of medication that calms down inflammation. Anti-inflammatory medications can be delivered to the lungs using an inhaler.

Bronchospasm: A sudden tightening of the muscles that line the airways of the lungs. When these muscles tighten, airways become narrower, and it causes difficulty breathing and other symptoms of asthma.

Bronchodilator: Medicines that are used for easing the symptoms of a bronchospasm.

Corticosteroids: A form of anti-inflammatory medication taken regularly to keep asthma under control. Corticosteroids are usually taken with an inhaler as a preventive treatment. People with severe asthma may be prescribed a course of oral corticosteroids (tablets that you eat) to help keep their symptoms manageable.

Dyspnea: Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing – the feeling that you can’t quite get enough air. It can be a sign of asthma or another respiratory condition.

Peak flow meter: A small device that measures the peak expiratory flow of your breath.


Inhaler: A small hand-held device used to deliver medication to the lungs. An inhaler can be a so-called dry powder inhaler (DPI) or a pressurised metered dose inhaler (pMDI) that uses aerosol propellant to administer a dose. A dose administration from DPIs is generated by fast inhalation/inspiration by the user. 

Inhalers may contain either preventer or reliever medication. Preventer (usually corticosteroid) is an anti-inflammatory drug and controls asthma inflammation while reliever is a bronchodilator drug to open airways when needed. The relievers are on-demand medication while the preventers are a maintenance therapy. Preventer and reliever medications can be also combined in one device.

You should always discuss the treatment options and the correct use of an inhaler with your doctor.

Triggers: Activities or experiences that cause your asthma symptoms to flare up. This may be things like heavy exercise or exposure to pollens or animal dander. Your doctor may tell you to try to avoid anything that triggers your asthma like certain animals, pollution or other airborne irritants.

Spacer: A device that kids or adults can attach to pressurised metered dose inhalers (pMDIs) to make it easier to inhale medication. A spacer holds the aerosolised medicine in a chamber for a few seconds so you can breathe it in your own pace. The pMDI will be attached to the spacer at one end and inhalation of the medication takes place at the other end through a mouthpiece.

Symptoms: Symptoms of asthma include wheezing, chest tightness, coughing, or finding it hard to catch your breath, for example after exercise or when you’ve breathed in something that might upset your lungs like air pollution, chemicals or other allergens.

Wheezing: A rattling or whistling noise when you breathe is called wheezing. It’s one of the most common asthma symptoms.


Text by Sarah Hudson

Photo by iStock


2020 GINA Report, Global Strategy for Asthma Management and Prevention.


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Orion Corporation is a globally operating Finnish pharmaceutical company. We develop, manufacture and market human and veterinary pharmaceuticals and active pharmaceutical ingredients. The dry powder inhaler developed at Orion is in the core of our respiratory therapy area.