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)
  • breathlessness
  • a tight chest – which may feel like a band is tightening around it 
  • coughing

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.

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:

  1. the muscles around the walls of the airways tighten so that the airways become narrower
  2. the lining of the airways becomes inflamed and starts to swell
  3. 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.

If you think your child may have asthma

It can take time to get a diagnosis of asthma for your child. Diagnosing asthma in children can take weeks, months or even years if your child is very young when they first have symptoms. This means the process of diagnosis can be a frustrating and worrying time for parents. 

It can feel like there’s a lot to take in when your child has just been diagnosed with asthma and it is helpful to know what triggers their Asthma so that you can minimise exposure or ensure medication is available to manage. Common triggers are listed below:

  • Viral illnesses such as colds and flu
  • Exercise
  • Food allergies
  • Pollution
  • Indoor environment e.g. damp and mould
  • Smoking and second hand smoke (stop smoking and not letting others smoke around your child will help)
  • Emotions
  • Female hormones
  • Stress and anxiety
  • Recreational drugs
  • Animals and pets
  • House dust mites
  • Pollen
  • Weather e.g. cold and damp

If exercise is one of the triggers your child does not need to miss out on PE and should ensure that their PE teacher is aware they have asthma and allow them time to use their inhaler as recommended.

As a parent, there’s a lot you can do alongside your child’s GP or asthma nurse to help manage your child’s asthma symptoms well and cut their risk of an asthma attack.

Every day 

  • •    Use your child’s written asthma action plan
  • •    Make sure your child takes their preventer medicine every day as prescribed, and watch them take it to make sure they’re using the right technique
  • •    Make sure your child always has their reliever inhaler (often blue) with them to use if they have any symptoms

Every six months 

  • •    Take your child for an asthma review with their GP or asthma nurse at least every six months, where you can ask questions and update their written asthma action plan.
  • •    At the asthma review, ask your GP or asthma nurse to check your child is taking their inhaler(s) correctly.

If your child gets lots of asthma symptoms, you might worry about their academic development if they miss lots of school, or their social development if they have to avoid activities, such as sports clubs or play dates. You might also feel concerned their confidence will take a knock because of their asthma – maybe they’ll feel different from other children or hold themselves back from doing something ‘just in case’ it triggers asthma symptoms.

Most children with asthma, though, can take asthma medicines to help them stay symptom-free. If they take their preventer medicine every day exactly as prescribed, their asthma is much less likely to affect their everyday life or development.

For the very small percentage of children with severe asthma, their asthma symptoms are likely to have more of an impact on their daily life and development. Severe asthma affects everyone differently, but your child will probably need lots of support to help them understand their own triggers and symptoms, and what things they can and can’t do. If your child has been diagnosed with severe asthma, your consultant can answer your questions and help you to support your child.

It’s a good idea to involve your child as much as possible in looking after their asthma from a young age. Your child will probably feel more confident and empowered about their asthma if they play their part in looking after it. Hopefully it will also help you to feel reassured that they know how to look after themselves when they’re not with you

To find out more visit the Asthma site where you will find a number of resources and information including those listed below to help your child understand and manage their Asthma.

  1. If you or the person you are with has an inhaler, they will be able to use this.

Call an ambulance if you are very concerned but you must at least seek urgent medical support if:

  1. The child needs to use the blue inhaler more than once every 4 hours
  2. Their symptoms are getting worse

This content has been developed by the School Health Team and information from the Asthma UK website