There has been a sharp increase in the global prevalence, morbidity, mortality, and economic burden associated with asthma over the last 40 years, particularly in children. Approximately 300 million people worldwide currently have asthma, and its prevalence increases by 50% every decade. In North America, 10% of the population have asthma. Asthma is underdiagnosed and undertreated, although the use of inhaled corticosteroids has made a positive impact on outcomes. The increasing number of hospital admissions for asthma, which are most pronounced in young children, reflect an increase in severe asthma, poor disease management, and poverty. Worldwide, approximately 180,000 deaths annually are attributable to asthma, although overall mortality rates have fallen since the 1980s. Most asthma deaths occur in those > or = 45 years old and are largely preventable, frequently being related to inadequate long-term medical care or delays in obtaining medical help during the last attack. The financial burden on patients with asthma in different Western countries ranges from $300 to $1,300 per patient per year, disproportionately affecting those with the most severe disease. There are a number of significant barriers to reducing the burden of asthma, particularly in developing countries, where many patients have limited access to care and essential medications. The Global Initiative for Asthma has outlined a six-point patient management plan to address the effective handling of the increased number of patients in primary care. The plan focuses on patient education, written treatment plans, and ongoing communication and review with patients and their providers.