Living with severe asthma can be challenging. It’s often harder to control than mild-to-moderate asthma and may require higher and more frequent doses of medication. If not properly managed, it can lead to a serious, life-threatening asthma attack.

You can reduce the effect severe asthma has on your day-to-day life by keeping it under control with treatment and lifestyle changes. It’s also a good idea to familiarize yourself with some of the key facts and statistics about the condition.

Read on to learn more about severe asthma’s prevalence, risk factors, triggers, symptoms, and treatment options.

For years, researchers estimated the prevalence of severe asthma to be between 5 and 10 percent of all asthma patients. But the exact prevalence was unknown due to the lack of an accurate definition of the condition.

In 2011, the Innovative Medicine Initiative established a clear definition in which the distinction was made between difficult-to-control asthma and severe refractory asthma.

Difficult-to-control asthma is marked by lack of control due to reasons other than the disease itself, such as poor inhalation technique or not adhering to treatment. Severe refractory asthma is characterized by a lack of asthma control despite adherence to treatment and proper inhalation technique.

Using this new definition, a recent study done in the Netherlands demonstrated that the prevalence of severe asthma is 3.6 percent of all adults with asthma. This works out to 10.4 of every 10,000 adults in the entire population, which is a significantly lower prevalence than originally thought.

Women tend to have a higher risk of developing severe asthma than men. Other risk factors include obesity, cigarette smoking, and poor adherence to treatment. Your risk also increases if you have other health conditions such as sinusitis, nasal polyps, or chronic lung disease.

Some potential triggers for severe asthma include indoor allergens like dust mites and pet dander. Outdoor allergens include pollens and molds. Environmental irritants like pollution or chemicals in the workplace can trigger asthma. Other triggers include high levels of stress, breathing in cold and dry air, and contracting a respiratory virus.

Severe asthma carries many of the same symptoms as mild-to-moderate asthma, only they’re more intense and harder to control.

The main symptoms of severe asthma include:

  • coughing
  • wheezing
  • shortness of breath
  • tightness or pain in the chest

Severe asthma attacks tend to be more serious than those experienced by people with mild-to-moderate asthma. They can sometimes even be life-threatening.

The symptoms of a severe asthma attack can include:

  • severe breathlessness or wheezing
  • trouble speaking due to shortness of breath
  • low peak flow readings
  • straining your chest muscles in order to breathe
  • pale skin, lips, or fingernails that may turn blue in color
  • little or no improvement after using your rescue inhaler

If you experience any of the above symptoms of a severe asthma attack, it’s important that you call 911 or go to a hospital to receive treatment right away.

Treatment for severe asthma varies from person to person. Your doctor will help you decide which treatment is best for you depending on the intensity of your symptoms and how you respond to certain medications.

Some types of severe asthma medications include:

  • inhaled corticosteroids
  • oral corticosteroids
  • short-acting beta agonists (SABAs)
  • long-acting beta agonists (LABAs)
  • biologic injections
  • leukotriene modifiers

Making the following changes to your lifestyle can also help with your severe asthma treatment:

  • If you’re a smoker, take steps to quit as soon as possible.
  • Try your best to avoid any of your known triggers. Regularly vacuum areas of your house where dust may accumulate, like carpets and furniture.
  • If you’re overweight, talk to your doctor about creating a weight-loss plan.
  • Make sure you adhere strictly to your treatment plan, and always take your medications at the scheduled time.
  • Create an asthma action plan with instructions for early treatment of asthma symptoms.

There are both direct and indirect costs you may have to pay when you live with severe asthma. Your doctor’s appointments, medications, and complementary therapies can add up. Plus, the more severe your asthma is, the more you may need to spend on medications and even hospital visits.

In addition, people with severe asthma are more likely to experience limitations when it comes to work and other activities. People over age 50 with severe asthma may especially need to take more time off from work or stop working entirely.

From 2008 to 2013, the annual economic cost of asthma was more than $81.9 billion in the United States alone. An estimated 50 percent of all asthma-related healthcare costs come from severe asthma cases.

Severe asthma can be difficult to get under control, which is why it’s so important to gain all the information about it that you can. Learning about the prevalence, risk factors, treatment options, and more can make it easier for you to communicate with your doctor. In turn, this can help you manage your asthma better.