Asthma is a long-term condition that affects a person’s airways - the tubes that carry air in and out of the lungs. You could say that someone with asthma has 'sensitive' airways that are inflamed and ready to react when they come into contact with something they don't like.
Asthma tends to run in families, especially when there's also a history of allergies and/or smoking.
It affects people of all ages and often starts in childhood, although it can also develop for the first time in adults.
There's currently no cure, but there are simple treatments that can help keep the symptoms under control so it does not have a big impact on your life.
The main symptoms of asthma are:
- wheezing (a whistling sound when breathing)
- a tight chest – which may feel like a band is tightening around it
The severity of the symptoms varies from person to person. They usually come and go, but for some people they're more persistent. Asthma symptoms can sometimes get temporarily worse. This is known as an asthma attack.
Symptoms of an asthma attack
Signs that you may be having an asthma attack include:
- your symptoms are getting worse (cough, breathlessness, wheezing or tight chest)
- your reliever inhaler (usually blue) is not helping
- you're too breathless to speak, eat or sleep
- your breathing is getting faster and it feels like you cannot catch your breath
- your peak flow score is lower than normal
- children may also complain of a tummy or chest ache
The symptoms will not necessarily occur suddenly. In fact, they often come on slowly over a few hours or days.
Asthma can usually be diagnosed from your symptoms and some simple tests.
A GP will probably be able to diagnose it, but they may refer you to a specialist if they're not sure.
The GP may ask:
- what symptoms you have
- when they happen and how often
- if anything seems to trigger them
- if you have conditions such as eczema or allergies, or a family history of them
They may suggest doing some tests to confirm if you have asthma.
It can feel like there’s a lot to take in when you are diagnosed with asthma and it is helpful to know what triggers your Asthma so that you can minimise exposure or ensure you have medication available to manage any symptoms
Common triggers are listed below:
- Viral illnesses such as colds and flu
- Food allergies
- Indoor environment e.g. damp and mould
- Smoking and second hand smoke (stop smoking and not letting others smoke around you will help)
- Female hormones
- Stress and anxiety
- Recreational drugs
- Animals and pets
- House dust mites
- Weather e.g. cold and damp
If exercise is one of the triggers you do not need to miss out on PE and should ensure that your PE teacher is aware you have asthma and allow you time to use their inhaler as recommended.
There’s a lot you can do alongside your GP, asthma nurse, parents and school to help manage your asthma symptoms well and cut your risk of an asthma attack.
If you have asthma, things you can do to help include:
- using your inhaler correctly – Asthma UK has information about using your inhaler, and you can ask a nurse or GP for advice if you're still not sure
- using your preventer inhaler or tablets every day – this can help keep your symptoms under control and prevent asthma attacks
- checking before taking other medicines – always check the packet to see if a medicine is suitable for someone with asthma, and ask a pharmacist, doctor or nurse if you're not sure
- not smoking – stopping smoking can significantly reduce the severity and frequency of the symptoms are
- exercising regularly – exercise should not trigger your symptoms once you're on appropriate treatment; Asthma UK has advice about exercising with asthma
- eating healthily – most people with asthma can have a normal diet
- getting vaccinated – it's a good idea to have the annual flu jab and the one-off pneumococcal vaccination
If you think you're having an asthma attack, you should:
- Sit up straight – try to keep calm.
- Take one puff of your reliever inhaler (usually blue) every 30 to 60 seconds up to 10 puffs.
- If you feel worse at any point, or you do not feel better after 10 puffs, call 999 for an ambulance.
- If the ambulance has not arrived after 10 minutes and your symptoms are not improving, repeat step 2.
- If your symptoms are no better after repeating step 2, and the ambulance has still not arrived, contact 999 again immediately.
Never be frightened of calling for help in an emergency.
Try to take the details of your medicines (or your personal asthma action plan) with you to hospital if possible.
If your symptoms improve and you do not need to call 999, get an urgent same-day appointment to see a GP or asthma nurse.
This advice is not for people on SMART or MART treatment. If this applies to you, ask a GP or asthma nurse what to do if you have an asthma attack.
How to help someone else having an asthma attack
- Help the person sit in a comfortable position and take their inhaler.
- Reassure the person. If the attack becomes severe, or they don't have their inhaler, call 999 as soon as possible.
Cold weather is a common trigger for asthma symptoms.
There are things you can do to help control your symptoms in the cold:
- carry your reliever inhaler with you at all times and keep taking your regular preventer inhaler as prescribed
- if you need to use your inhaler more than usual, speak to your doctor about reviewing your treatment
- keep warm and dry – wear gloves, a scarf and a hat, and carry an umbrella
- wrap a scarf loosely over your nose and mouth – this will help warm up the air before you breathe it
- try breathing in through your nose instead of your mouth – your nose warms the air as you breathe
Asthma should not stop you from travelling, but you'll need to take extra precautions when going on holidays and long trips.
Make sure you have enough medicine with you, and keep your reliever inhaler easily accessible.
If you've not seen your doctor or asthma nurse for a while, it's a good idea to see them before you travel to review your personal action plan and make sure it's up to date.
Your doctor or asthma nurse can also advise you about travelling with asthma.
When a person with asthma comes into contact with something that irritates their sensitive airways even more (an asthma trigger), it causes their body to react in three ways:
- the muscles around the walls of the airways tighten so that the airways become narrower
- the lining of the airways becomes inflamed and starts to swell
- sticky mucus or phlegm sometimes builds up, which can narrow the airways even more.
These reactions cause the airways to become narrower and irritated - making it difficult to breathe and leading to asthma symptoms, such as chest tightness, wheezing, or coughing
Who gets asthma?
In the UK, around 5.4 million people are currently receiving treatment for asthma. That's one in every 12 adults and one in every 11 children. Asthma affects more boys than girls. Asthma in adults is more common in women than men. Asthma can sometimes be defined as a type, such as 'occupational'. Approximately five per cent of people with asthma have severe asthma.
Can asthma be cured?
Currently there is no cure for asthma. The good news, though, is that there are lots of safe and effective treatments available to manage the symptoms. You just need to work with your GP or asthma nurse to find the ones that work well for you, and get into good habits so you take them exactly as prescribed, so you can get the benefits.
Is asthma a serious condition?
Tragically, three people die every day because of asthma attacks and research shows that two thirds of asthma deaths are preventable. The reassuring fact is that most people with asthma who get the right treatment - and take it correctly - can manage their symptoms and get on with what they want to do in life.