Asthma affects the small airways that carry air in and out of the lungs. These airways can become inflamed, swollen and contract. You may be one of more than the 5.2 million people in the UK who have asthma.
What causes it?
Asthma often runs in families. Children are also more likely to develop asthma if their mother smokes during pregnancy or while breastfeeding.
Most people find there are several things that can trigger their asthma
Some of the most common predisposing factors for asthma are allergies to house dust mites, mould spores, pollen and pets, and sometimes food allergies. Most people find there are several things that can trigger their asthma.
Asthma triggers include:
- Viral infections, such as colds and flu
- Cigarette smoke
- Certain forms of exercise, such as running
- Exposure to cold, dry air
- Laughing and other emotions
- Medication containing aspirin
- Drinks containing sulphur dioxide, such as squashes and lemon barley water
What are the symptoms?
The main symptoms are coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath and a tight feeling in the chest.
What's the treatment?
There are two main treatments for asthma - relievers and preventers. These come in a variety of delivery devices called inhalers. You breathe the medicine in through your mouth, directly into your lungs.
Relievers are drugs called 'bronchodilators' (based on adrenaline) that relax the muscles which surround the airways, making it easier to breathe. You should take these as directed by your doctor as soon as symptoms appear.
Taking a dose of the reliever inhaler before exercise will increase your stamina and prevent breathing difficulty.
Preventers are drugs (usually low-dose steroids) that reduce inflammation in the airways and make them less sensitive. This means that you are less likely to react when your body comes across a trigger.
The protective effect of this medicine is built up over a period of time so you must take your preventer regularly, as directed by your doctor.
Combination preventer and long-acting reliever inhalers have become very popular and seem to be particularly good in controlling more severe persistent asthma.
If your asthma is really bad, your doctor may also prescribe a short course of steroid tablets to calm your inflamed airways.
Newer anti-inflammatory medication includes the leukotriene antagonists, which are particularly useful for brittle asthma
Newer anti-inflammatory medication includes the leukotriene antagonists, which are particularly useful for brittle asthma and patients with aspirin-sensitive asthma.
The most recent addition to the list of possible treatments for asthma is a new injection medication for those with severe allergic asthma, which works by dampening down the allergic reaction.
There is little scientific evidence to support the use of breathing exercises in the treatment of asthma. However, some people with asthma find that breathing exercises reduce their symptoms of asthma and reduce their need for medication.
Can I prevent asthma?
You can help to avoid asthma by taking preventer medicine regularly and by avoiding your triggers. You can also monitor your asthma by asking your doctor to provide you with a peak-flow meter, a simple device that measures the amount of breath in your lungs.
If your asthma is caused by an allergy, you may be able to find out what you are allergic to by having special tests and then take practical steps to avoid the allergen.
Remember: never stop taking your preventer medication, even when your symptoms are stable. Don't wait until your symptoms get worse - they'll be harder to treat. Our asthma guide has more detailed information.