What is asthma?
Asthma is a common long-term condition that can cause a cough, wheezing, and breathlessness. The severity of the symptoms varies from person to person. Asthma can be controlled well in most people most of the time.
What causes asthma?
Asthma is caused by inflammation of the airways. These are the small tubes, called bronchi, which carry air in and out of the lungs. If you have asthma, the bronchi will be inflamed and more sensitive than normal.
When you come into contact with something that irritates your lungs, known as a trigger , your airways become narrow, the muscles around them tighten and there is an increase in the production of sticky mucus (phlegm). This leads to symptoms including:
wheezing and coughing
a tight chest
Symptoms of asthma
The symptoms of asthma can range from mild to severe. When asthma symptoms get significantly worse, it is known as an asthma attack.
The symptoms of asthma include:
feeling breathless (you may gasp for breath)
a tight chest, like a band tightening around it
wheezing, which makes a whistling sound when you breathe
coughing, particularly at night and early morning
attacks triggered by exercise, exposure to allergens and other triggers
You may experience one or more of these symptoms. Symptoms that are worse during the night or with exercise can mean your asthma is getting worse or is poorly controlled. Talk to your doctor or asthma nurse about this.
A severe asthma attack usually develops slowly, taking 6 to 48 hours to become serious. However, for some people, asthma symptoms can get worse quickly.
As well as symptoms getting worse, signs of an asthma attack include:
you get more wheezy, tight-chested or breathless
the reliever inhaler is not helping as much as usual
there is a drop in your peak expiratory flow (see diagnosing asthma for more information)
If you notice these signs, do not ignore them. Contact your GP or asthma clinic or consult your asthma action plan, if you have one.
Signs of a severe asthma attack include:
the reliever inhaler, which is usually blue, does not help symptoms at all
the symptoms of wheezing, coughing and tight chest are severe and constant
you are too breathless to speak
your pulse is racing
you feel agitated or restless
your lips or fingernails look blue
A severe onset of symptoms is known as an asthma attack or an ‘acute asthma exacerbation’. Asthma attacks may require hospital treatment and can sometimes be life-threatening, although this is rare.
For some people with chronic (long-lasting) asthma, long-term inflammation of the airways may lead to more permanent narrowing.
If you are diagnosed with asthma as a child, the symptoms may disappear during your teenage years. However, asthma can return in adulthood. Moderate to severe childhood symptoms are more likely to persist or return later in life. Although asthma does not only start in young people and can develop at any age.
The cause of asthma is not fully understood, although it is known to run in families. You are more likely to have asthma if one or both of your parents has the condition.
A trigger is anything that irritates the airways and brings on the symptoms of asthma. These differ from person to person and people with asthma may have several triggers.
Common triggers include house dust mites, animal fur, pollen, tobacco smoke, exercise, cold air and chest infections.
Asthma can also be made worse by certain activities, such as work. For example, some nurses develop asthma symptoms after exposure to latex. This is often referred to as work-related asthma or occupational asthma.
While there is no cure for asthma, there are a number of treatments that can help effectively control the condition. Treatment is based on two important goals:
preventing future symptoms and attacks from developing
Treatment and prevention involves a combination of medicines, lifestyle advice, and identifying and then avoiding potential asthma triggers.
Who is affected?
In the UK, 5.4 million people are currently receiving treatment for asthma. That is 1 in every 12 adults and 1 in every 11 children. Asthma in adults is more common in women than men.