While there's no cure for asthma — a chronic condition that makes breathing difficult — there are ample ways to curtail the wheezing, shortness of breath and coughing that come with it.
Managing asthma symptoms allows you to have an active life and also helps prevent the disease from ratcheting up and landing you in the emergency room, says allergist and immunologist Shuba Iyengar, MD, MPH, co-founder and chief medical officer of Allermi.
"Proper management of asthma can reduce the frequency and severity of symptoms and improve the overall health of the lung," Dr. Iyengar says.
And while prescription medications in the form of inhalers and nebulizers play a big role in asthma treatment, there are also natural remedies for asthma you can try at home to help manage your symptoms. Take a look at the ones experts recommend, as well as the "remedies" you should steer clear of because there's a lack of evidence to support them.
1. Avoid or Limit Exposure to Your Triggers
Allergies and asthma go hand in hand. In practice, that means snuggling Fluffy, sniffing springtime blooms or even lighting that scented candle might trigger your allergies, and in turn worsen your asthma.
But once you know your triggers, whether they be pets or dust or pollen, there's a lot you can do to limit your exposure.
"You want to avoid things that might irritate the lungs and be inhaled," says Jeanne Lomas, DO, a board-certified pediatric and adult allergist and director of allergy and immunology at WellNow Allergy.
This doesn't need to be drastic, she says. If you're allergic to cats, for instance, she wouldn't tell you to get rid of your pet, but rather, to make the bedroom off-limits to your feline friend.
There's no need to live in a bubble, Dr. Lomas says — the goal is just to "control your environment as much as you can."
Your efforts to reduce triggers will depend on exactly what your triggers are, but some common tactics include the following (which are similar to the best natural remedies for allergies):
- Keeping pets out of the bedroom: That way, it can be a sanctuary, Dr. Lomas says. Asthma can also be worse at night (when you're in your bedroom sleeping) due to a variety of reasons, including your sleep position and exposure to triggers, per the Cleveland Clinic. By keeping the bedroom pet-free, you'll reduce the dander on your pillow.
- Running an air purifier: Look for ones that are certified asthma- and allergy-friendly, per the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFI). (See our top picks for the best air purifiers.)
- Keep humidity under control: Aim for a humidity level below 50 percent, per the AAFI. This will prevent mold and mildew. That may require you using either a humidifier or a dehumidifier, depending on the climate where you live.
- Keep it clean: Vacuuming (including under furniture), dusting and generally keeping your living space clean will help you avoid dust, dander and other common allergens. (Try using one of the best vacuums for allergies.)
- Allergy-proof your bedding: "If a patient is dust-mite allergic, getting the special dust mite encasements for the mattress and pillow can help decrease breathing symptoms, especially at night," Dr. Iyengar says.
- Close the windows: If you're allergic to pollen, keep the windows closed in your bedroom. This stops pollen from "getting on the bedding, which can lead to worsening and persistent symptoms," Dr. Iyengar says.
- Skip the scents: Scented candles may be cozy, but they can also act as an irritant and trigger symptoms.
- Avoid smoke: Cigarette smoke is a common asthma trigger. Smoking yourself is problematic, but so too is being around others who smoke, and being exposed to secondhand smoke, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Vaping — whether it's tobacco or marijuana — should also be avoided if you have asthma. "People don't realize that vaping is just as detrimental to your lungs, if not more sometimes," Dr. Lomas says.
2. Maintain a Healthy Weight
There are a few reasons why losing weight could potentially be helpful for asthma if you have overweight or obesity, Dr. Lomas notes. These include:
- Less restriction on your lungs. "If...you have extra weight on your body, the amount that your chest can actually expand and contract is reduced," Dr. Lomas says. That is, if you have more fat on your chest, it'll take your body more effort to expand and contract your lungs, she says. With less weight, this task is easier.
- More effective medication: Having obesity seems to reduce the effectiveness of asthma treatments such as theophylline and inhaled corticosteroids (used in inhalers), per the American Lung Association.
- Reduce comorbidities: Some of the conditions associated with obesity such as depression and sleep apnea are also associated with more severe asthma symptoms, according to the American Lung Association.
Plus, losing weight or maintaining a healthy weight often involves exercise. That's good for you if you have asthma. "From a cardiovascular and respiratory perspective, you're working your lungs out more and you're making them stronger," Dr. Lomas says.
The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend adults get at least 150 minutes or moderate-intensity cardio (or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity cardio) each week, along with at least two days of strength-training.
3. Tweak Your Workout Routine
Don't let asthma stop you from exercising, Dr. Lomas says, noting that there are professional athletes, Olympians and people in the military with asthma.
If you have exercise-induced asthma, which doctors refer to as exercise-induced bronchoconstriction or EIB, asthma symptoms arrive within minutes of beginning to exercise, per Johns Hopkins Medicine. To control EIB, take the following steps:
- Don't skip warmups and cool-downs. You'll want to both start slow and wind down slowly, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
- Consider your environment. Allergies could be playing a role in asthma symptoms that come on during exercise, Dr. Lomas points out. Think about where your workout is occurring: Are you in a dusty gym? Running cross-country while pollen counts are high or in a high-pollution locale? It may be that it's not the activity (running, lifting, etc.) but rather an allergy-promoting environment, Dr. Lomas says.
- Breathe through your nose: Doing so — instead of mouth breathing — will make the air entering your lungs warmer and more humid, per the Mayo Clinic.
- Cover your mouth: When the weather is cold or dry (or both), it helps to place a face mask or scarf over your mouth and nose, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
- Stay hydrated: Drinking water is pretty much always a win. But if you have exercise-induced asthma, avoiding dehydration may be even more important because it can worsen asthma symptoms, per a October 2019 study in the Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation.
Feeling stressed or experiencing big emotions (think: fear, excitement or anger), can also trigger asthma symptoms, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Laughing and crying (accompaniments to strong emotional moments) can also be triggers.
Managing stress helps you avoid stress-induced asthma attacks. Try these tactics:
- Exercise: Among the many benefits of physical activity is stress reduction.
- Mindfulness and meditation: Mindful breathing, such as 4-7-8 breathing, helps lower stress rates. Relaxation techniques, such as visualization, can also be helpful, according to the American Lung Association. For people with asthma, meditating may help reduce stress and use of short-term asthma medication, per a July 2018 systematic review in the Journal of Asthma.
- Prioritize sleep: When you're overtired, it's harder to manage stressful situations, per the Cleveland Clinic. Aim to get the recommended seven to nine hours of shut-eye each night.
- Avoid stressful situations: This is, of course, not always possible. Sometimes work is stressful, or commuting, and these activities are largely unavoidable. Still, do your best to identify scenarios that heighten your stress levels and either avoid them or find ways to make them feel more manageable.
And keep in mind that stress can often mimic asthma symptoms.
If you feel like your chest is tight and you're short of breath, reaching for your inhaler is the natural, default response if you have asthma. But if the cause of these symptoms is stress — not asthma — using the inhaler won't help. In fact, it'll likely make you feel jittery and as if your heart is racing, Dr. Lomas says.
Plus, using your inhaler and not having symptoms abate can make you feel all the more panicky. Dr. Lomas frequently hears patients describe exactly this kind of scenario.
If this happens, Dr. Lomas recommends removing yourself from the situation to see if that eases the symptoms. But recognize that untangling stress and asthma can be quite challenging: Is it that your workplace has mold triggering your asthma, or that your work is stressful? Could be one or the other — or both.
Yoga, of course, is often mentioned as a means of stress management — plus, it's a form of exercise, which lowers stress and helps with asthma in other ways.
There's a moderate level of evidence that yoga can be an effective complementary therapy for people with mild or moderate asthma, helping improve symptoms and health-related quality of life, per a February 2023 meta-analysis in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice. (Complementary means it's in addition to other conventional asthma treatments, like an inhaler, and not in place of them.)
That echoes earlier research cited by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). Improvements in asthma symptoms due to yoga may be relatively low, but note that the risks associated with doing yoga are also low, per the NCCIH.
While there is no "asthma diet" to follow, certain shifts may help reduce symptoms, and some foods can support healthy lungs.
For instance, consider asthma yet another reason to load up on produce. "Fruits and vegetables can also make asthma symptoms more manageable," write the authors of a review paper in the November 2020 issue of Nutrition Reviews.
And here are some things to avoid:
- Sulfites can occur naturally in foods or be added — they're found in a variety of foods, including alcohol, dried fruit and pickled foods, per the American Lung Association. They can trigger asthma symptoms.
- Salicylates, a naturally occurring compound found in aspirin and some foods, per the American Lung Association, can also trigger asthma symptoms, although this sensitivity is more rare.
- Gas-inducing foods like fried foods or soda can cause gas and bloating, which can make breathing hard and cause asthma symptoms, according to the American Lung Association.
Yes, coffee may be a good drink for asthma. There's some evidence to support that your morning cup of joe (or other sources of caffeine) offers some benefits if you have asthma.
"Even small amounts of caffeine can improve lung function for up to four hours," per a January 2020 review in the Cochrane Database System Review.
That's not to say that caffeine is a treatment tactic for asthma — you can't swap a cup of coffee for your inhaler during an asthma attack, for instance, per the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA).
The amount of caffeine needed to improve symptoms might be so large that you'll start to feel coffee's more unpleasant side effects (jitteriness, racing heart and so on), per the writers of the above-mentioned review.
Bottom line: If you like drinking coffee, stick with it! But there's likely no need to pick up the habit in an effort to nix symptoms.
It could also be potentially helpful when it comes to asthma. For instance, having acupuncture sessions is associated with a significant improvement in asthma-related symptoms (although not with lung function improvements), per a January 2019 systematic review in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
Having acupuncture in addition to other routine asthma care led to improvements in asthma quality of life questionnaire (AQLQ) results compared to people who did not have acupuncture, per April 2017 results from a randomized trial in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.
9. Break Out the Neti Pot or Nasal Sprays
"People with both nasal allergies and asthma may experience more severe asthma symptoms and have a higher risk of experiencing asthma attacks," Dr. Iyengar says.
Treating nasal allergies with nasal sprays and saline nasal rinses can help when it comes to allergic asthma, she says.
In one small study, 30 participants — who all had severe asthma and rhinosinusitis (aka swollen sinuses) — irrigated their noses using a neti pot for three months. The majority of participants reported improved nasal and chest symptoms, according to the November 2016 results in Thorax.
What About Inhaling Essential Oils?
"Inhaling vapors from things that you might be allergic to, like eucalyptus or lavender essential oils" could increase your exposure to allergens, Dr. Iyengar points out. That, in turn, will worsen symptoms and is potentially harmful.
While essential oils can feel safe because they're natural, that's not always the case. If you're allergic to ragweed, you might have a reaction to chamomile if you inhale it through a diffuser or place it on your body, Dr. Lomas says. "Natural is great for most patients, but my patients are allergic to nature," she says.
Dr. Lomas says a good guideline is to avoid inhaling anything into your lungs that wasn't prescribed by your doctor.
Vitamin D often gets touted for people with asthma as a supplement that can help your lungs, and reasonably so, because it helps reduce airway inflammation, according to the American Lung Association.
But supplementing with this powerhouse vitamin did not help cut down on asthma attacks or improve symptoms in a February 2023 meta-analysis in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews that examined the results of 20 studies.
Note that this review contrasts with more positive results about vitamin D found in a previous review in 2016 — also published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews — which may also account for vitamin D frequently being endorsed.
The data just isn't there to back up taking herbal remedies, per the NCCIH. Herbs that sometimes get mentioned for asthma include ding-chan tang (DCT), Gingko biloba, licorice root and Ma Huang (ephedra, which is banned by the FDA), per the Cleveland Clinic.
If you're interested in using herbs for asthma treatment, make sure to run it by your doctor first — while herbs may be natural, they can interact with medications in unexpected ways. For instance, Gingko biloba can cause problems if taken in conjunction with the common blood thinner warfarin, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
When to See a Doctor About Asthma
If you have asthma, regular appointments with your doctor are a must, Dr. Iyengar says. That's true even if you aren't having active symptoms, because these appointments help ensure your treatment plan is effective and you're using the appropriate medications, she says.
Certain symptoms — such as wheezing, shortness of breath and chest tightness or pain — merit immediate medical care, Dr. Iyengar says. That is, don't wait for your annual appointment to roll around.
If you're unsure of when to see a doctor — or how often — Dr. Lomas endorses following the Rule of Two. According to this rubric, per the Allergy and Asthma Network, a visit to the doctor is recommended if you:
- Use your quick relief (aka rescue) inhaler more than twice a week
- Wake up at night with asthma more than twice a month
- Refill your quick relief inhaler more than twice a year
- Use prednisone (a steroid) two or more times in a year for asthma flares
- Measure changes in peak flow with asthma symptoms more than 20 percent
This rubric is helpful because it allows for occasional changes (such as waking up with asthma at night a few times a week when you have a cold) but shows when the frequency is reaching a stage where a doctor visit makes sense, Dr. Lomas says.