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Health Professionals

Lesson One for Grades 4-6
What Is Asthma?

30 Minutes

On Your Mark


Students will be able to:

  1. Define asthma as a condition that causes difficulty with breathing.
  2. Explain that asthma can be controlled to allow children to be active and healthy.
  3. Describe asthma as a condition that affects the airways in the lungs.
  4. Explain that asthma cannot be caught like a cold or infection.
  5. Describe the airways in the lungs as the part of the respiratory system affected by asthma.
  6. Describe four signs and symptoms of an asthma episode such as coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath, and chest tightness or chest pain.
  7. List four things that can make asthma worse such as exercise, cigarette or other tobacco smoke, pollens, animals, colds, flu, and cold air.

Get Set

Teacher Preparation

Asthma: A condition that affects the airways in the lungs causing difficulty with breathing. Asthma cannot be caught like a cold. Some people develop the symptoms of asthma when they are very young, and others do not have the signs and symptoms of asthma for many years. People can control their asthma and live active, healthy lives.

Allergies: A condition resulting in symptoms such as sneezing, itchy eyes, and stuffy nose. People with allergies react to pollens, animals, and things in dust that don't cause a reaction in most people.

Disease: A condition or illness with a specific set of physical signs and symptoms.

Episode: Any event or series of events.

Symptoms or Signs: Physical changes or feelings that show a disease or condition exists.

Asthma Episode: An event or series of asthma symptoms which may include coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and difficulty breathing.

Respiratory System: The parts of the body involved with breathing. Includes the nose, throat, airways, and the lungs.


Classroom Activity: Administer and collect Pre-test. If instructional time is limited, you may want to omit the pre/post test. Use the Check for Understanding questions in the lesson to determine if the objectives have been met. Depending on your students' reading ability, you may want to administer the test orally.

Focus the Learner

Classroom Activity: Have students hold their breath for a little while.

"What happens if you hold your breath?" or "What happens if we do not get air into our bodies?" Responses may include: "We need air so that our bodies can work" or "Without air we would die."

"When we finish this lesson, you'll be able to describe asthma. You will also be able to identify the parts of the respiratory system (or body, if you have not yet introduced body systems) affected by asthma."


Classroom Activity: Pass out one unwrapped straw to each student.

"Let's see how it might feel to have difficulty breathing. Close your lips around the straw. Slowly and quietly breathe in and out through the straw. Put your thumbs up if you think it is fairly easy to breathe this way. Put your thumbs down if you think it's difficult. Most of you students should find it easy."

"Most of the time we can breathe in and out easily because our airways are open. Now close your mouth around the straw. With your finger, pinch the straw mostly closed in the middle. Try breathing in and out again. Put your thumbs up if it's easier or about the same as before. Put your thumbs down if it's harder. Most of you students should find it more difficult."

"When you pinch the straw, it makes it harder to breathe. How would it work to breathe through a straw if it were filled with a thick liquid like a milkshake?" Responses include: "The thick liquid would make it very difficult to get air through the straw."

Classroom Activity: Display the transparency Respiratory System and Asthma.

Using the transparency, review the parts of the respiratory system, pointing out the nose, throat, and the airways in the lungs. Have students label parts on the left side of the diagram. Review the right side of the diagram, which illustrates the airways during an asthma episode. Note the difference in the swelling of the lining of the airways during an asthma episode.

"How do the airways in the lungs look different on the right side of the diagram?" Responses should include that the airways are not as big and this makes it hard to get air in or out of the airway.

"In an asthma episode--some people call it an attack--the lining of the airways in the lungs get thicker and swollen. The airways get squeezed by the muscles around the airway. This makes the airways narrower, just like the straw when you squeezed it. The airways in the lungs also get filled with a thick liquid called mucus. These changes make it difficult to breathe. The more the airways are pinched by the muscles, swollen and filled with mucus, the more difficult it is to breathe. It is something like the feeling you get when you have been running very, very hard. You have a hard time breathing in and out and feel like you cannot catch your breath."

"The straw is like the airways in our lungs. Most of the time, children with asthma can breathe easily because their airways are open. They can run and play and go to school just like other children. But sometimes, the airways in their lungs get squeezed like we did with the straw. The inside of the airways swell and get filled with a thick liquid called mucus. The child with asthma has difficulty moving the air in and out of the lungs. This is called an asthma attack or episode."

Check for Understanding

"What part of the respiratory system (or body) is affected during an asthma episode?" Response should be: the airways in the lungs.

"In what way?" Responses may include: the airways get swollen and filled with mucus, and squeezed. The narrow airways make it hard to breathe in and out.


"We've learned what asthma is and that an asthma episode makes breathing more difficult. We also have learned what parts of the respiratory system are affected by asthma."

Focus the Learner

"What might a child having an asthma episode look like or sound like?" Responses may include: "They sound like they are coughing" or "They look like they cannot catch their breath."

"In the next part of the lesson, you'll learn the signs and symptoms of asthma and what can bring on an asthma episode."


"The physical changes and feelings that show that someone has a disease or condition are called signs and symptoms. For example, how can you tell if you're getting a cold?" Responses may include coughing, sneezing, or runny nose.

"We call these the signs and symptoms of a cold. They tell us that we have a cold. Most diseases and conditions have signs and symptoms. There are also signs and symptoms for asthma. The signs and symptoms happen when the person is having an asthma episode. What is one sign or symptom of asthma?" Responses may include coughing, being short of breath, wheezing or noisy breathing, tightness or pain in the chest, gasping, trouble talking or walking because they have trouble breathing.

"The main symptoms of asthma are coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath and tightness in the chest. They do not happen all at once. Some people may have only one sign such as coughing."

"Some symptoms may not be seen by others, but the person with the asthma episode would feel them. An example is chest tightness which might feel like having a heavy weight on the chest."

"Children with asthma do not always have difficulty breathing. Some children have very mild asthma. They are only bothered every now and then, sometimes only once a week or only a few times a year. Other children have very serious asthma. They can be bothered a lot or even most of the time unless they take medicine. A few children with asthma are bothered by their asthma much of the time even when they take their medicine. But most children with asthma can play and go to school just like children without asthma if they, their family, and a doctor work together and take care of their asthma."

"How do you think people get asthma?" Possible responses might include: you have a bad gene, you catch it from someone, your lungs are hurt somehow.

"Scientist don't know exactly how people get asthma. They do know that most people with asthma were born with the chance to get it at some time in their life. Some people develop the signs and symptoms of asthma when they are very young; others do not develop symptoms until they are older. Asthma is not something that is passed from one person to another. You cannot catch it like a cold or infection. People with asthma have sensitive airways. Their airways can be very sensitive to ordinary things in the air. Have you ever walked into a room being painted? Do you remember the strong smell? Have you ever been near someone smoking? How did that feel?" Responses include: made me cough, hurt my eyes, made my chest hurt.

"People with asthma may get these feelings such as coughing and wheezing more easily than people who don't have asthma. Also, the airways in their lungs are more sensitive to some things that usually don't bother people without asthma. When they are around these things, their asthma gets worse and their airways get even more sensitive. Their airways get pinched and clogged. They have a hard time breathing in and out. Their asthma gets worse and their airways get even more sensitive. There are lots of different things that can make asthma worse."

Classroom Activity: If time allows, break into small groups at this point. Instructions to the group: "Many of you probably know someone with asthma. Think about the things that make that person have trouble with his/her asthma. In each work group, choose a recorder and brainstorm a list of things which can make asthma worse." Use the What Makes Asthma Worse cards to check the brainstorm lists.

Alternatively, continue the lesson as a teacher presentation. Use the What Makes Asthma Worse cards to illustrate the presentation.

"The ordinary things that bother most people with asthma include: dust from pillows, beds, couches, carpets; other things that bother people with asthma are cigarette smoke; allergies to furry or feathered animals such as cats, dogs, hamsters, or birds; allergies to tree and grass pollen; allergies to cockroaches; colds or flu; running or playing hard; cold air; changes in the weather; strong smells; chemical fumes; and laughing or crying hard."

Background Note: Anyone, even if they do not have asthma, may experience a very temporary shortness of breath after heavy exercise. Point out to students that this shortness of breath is different from the shortness of breath in an asthma episode. Even after heavy exercise a child without asthma recovers easily and has no other symptoms. Usually, the child with asthma will need treatment to recover from symptoms. Be sure that students understand that just because people have difficulty breathing during exercise or experience coughing does not necessarily mean that they are having an asthma episode.

Episodes can sometimes be brought on by the physical effects of strong emotions such as laughing, crying or strong emotional distress. However, it is important to know that asthma is not caused by emotional factors such as a troubled parent-child relationship. Some people think asthma is "all in one's head." This is wrong. It is a disease in the airways.

Additional Activity: Have a magazine picture hunt for things that make asthma worse. Students can work individually or in teams to identify and share pictures. Another additional activity is the Classroom Scene: Find The Things That Make Asthma Worse page. Pass the page out, have the students complete the page and then discuss it.


Classroom Activity: Divide students into small groups. Have each group brainstorm a list of things that make asthma worse. From the total group, develop a list that students can use to check at home for things that can make asthma worse. Have each student suggest "solutions" for problems they find at home.

"Today we learned: asthma is a condition that some people are born with which affects the airways in the lungs. During an asthma episode, the airways can be pinched and clogged, making it harder for a person to breathe. They have signs and symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, and tightness of the chest. We also learned that dust, cigarette smoke, exercise, cold air, colds, and allergies can bring on an asthma episode. Tomorrow you will learn what someone with asthma can do to stay healthy and how you can be helpful to someone with asthma."

Additional Language Arts Activity: Use the vocabulary words as spelling words. Have students use them in a sentence and write a story about a person with asthma using the lead phrase, "My best friend just found out he/she has asthma..."

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