It's estimated that over 300 million people in the world, and around 30 million in the US suffer from some form of asthma. Nearly everyone knows at least one person who is affected by this disease, and the numbers are increasing significantly. According to Wikipedia, asthma is “the common chronic inflammatory disease of the airways characterized by variable and recurring symptoms, reversible airflow obstruction, and bronchospasm.” It's caused by genetics, environmental influences, or a combination of the two.
Symptoms of asthma include coughing and wheezing, tight chest, and shortness of breath. In extreme cases an asthma attack can be so severe that your body's organs don't receive the needed oxygen and permanent damage or even death can occur. The symptoms are caused by the airways becoming inflamed and constricted. This can be induced by a number of things, including exercise, allergens, smoke (cigarette and otherwise) and other irritants in the air.
By avoiding these triggers, many people can significantly reduce the effects, and sometimes prevent symptoms almost entirely. If lifestyle modifications aren't enough to relieve the symptoms, medical treatment is recommended. Medications are divided into two classes: short term and long term. Short term medicines are meant for fast acting relief of acute symptoms, while long term are meant as a more permanent control and prevention measure. Both are most commonly delivered via a metered-dose inhaler.
In severe cases and emergencies, other measures may be taken. Concentrated oxygen can be administered to increase oxygen saturation. A helium-oxygen mix may also be used in severe cases. Other times an intravenous treatment may be used. Generally, none of these are used unless the asthma attack is not responding to any of the usual control methods, and thus are emergency only methods of management.
Many people who suffer from asthma seek additional help from alternative medicines. While there is little medical data to support the effectiveness of most alternative therapies, anecdotal evidence is easy to come by. Even if these therapies and management efforts offer no more than peace of mind, they can be useful, so long as they don't exacerbate the condition.