What is asthma?

Asthma is a lung disease that can make breathing difficult. Without careful management of asthma, some people can have symptoms like:

  • Tight feeling in the chest

  • Shortness of breath

  • Coughing

  • Wheezing

Several common things in the environment can trigger asthma symptoms. Asthma triggers cause breathing to be even more difficult by tightening the airways. Symptoms can be mild for some people and dangerous for others. Common asthma triggers (or things that cause asthma symptoms), include:

  • Mold

  • Dust mites

  • Tobacco smoke

  • Fragrances and strong odors

  • Some chemicals (such as cleaning products, especially disinfectants)

  • Cold, dry air

  • Pests, including rodents and bugs

  • Furry or feathered classroom pets

Although there is no cure for asthma, people with asthma can live healthy, active lives. It is important that asthma is managed so that students can be healthy and ready to learn. Many adults live with asthma as well, and conditions for staff and other adults in the school setting can put them at risk, too. Well-managed asthma, including a safe and healthy environment, helps to prevent asthma symptoms for both children and adults. School administrators, school nurses, teachers, parents, and facilities and maintenance staff can all help to create an asthma-friendly environment for learning, working, and playing.

Why do asthma-friendly policies and practices make such a difference in the lives of students with asthma?

Asthma is the most common chronic disease of childhood. In any given classroom, it is likely that two or three students have asthma. In larger classrooms and in some urban settings, that number is likely to be even higher. Children often stay home from school when they have asthma symptom, or they might have a hard time participating when they are in school. Research shows that children who have a lot of absences in preschool, kindergarten, and first grade are much less likely to read at grade level by the third grade (1). These students are also four-times more likely to drop out of high school (2).  

Since children spend a lot of their time in school, an asthma-friendly environment means healthier students who are ready to learn. The benefits of an asthma-friendly school can include:

  • Better attendance

  • Improved academic performance

  • Improved focus and physical stamina

  • Enhanced student and staff productivity

  • Fewer restrictions on participation in physical activities

  • Fewer symptoms and medical emergencies

Everyone -- including families, school staff, students and community groups -- can play a role in creating this asthma-friendly environment. The first step is educating children, parents, and staff about asthma and the school environment. Practices and activities that identify and reduce potential triggers are important. In addition, the most effective and long-lasting way to create an asthma-friendly environment is through the implementation of school-wide and district-wide policies.

The school community can help by:

  • Educating children, parents, and staff about asthma and the school environment

  • Identifying and reducing potential asthma triggers in the school

  • Developing and implementing policies that create a supportive, asthma-friendly environment

(1) Ehrlich, S., Gwynne, J. A., Pareja, A. S., and Allensworth, E. M. (2013). Preschool Attendance in Chicago Public Schools: Relationships with Learning Outcomes and Reasons for Absences. Chicago: The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Reform. 
(2) Hernandez, D. (2011). Double Jeopardy: How Third-Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation. Baltimore: The Annie E. Casey Foundation, page 6.

Tools to Get Started

Environmental Walk-through Checklist: Use this checklist to help identify problem areas inside and outside the school building.

Promoting Healthy School Buildings: Tips for Schools and Teachers Fact Sheet and Asthma-friendly Schools: An Overview: Overview of the connection between the school environment and asthma, and five ways to get started in addressing unhealthy environments.

The Importance of Asthma-friendly Schools Infographic: Highlights the relationship between asthma and education, and the role that schools can play in keep children and staff healthy.

Why Should Schools Care about Asthma Fact Sheet

Facilities and Custodial Staff: You Can Make an Enormous Impact

Case Study: It Takes a Team: Clinical Asthma Management in the Classroom

Additional tools on specific issues are available within the toolkit.