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Asthma is a lung condition that causes inflammation and swelling of the airways inside the lungs. This restricts airflow into and out of the lungs causing symptoms such as a cough or wheeze.

What is asthma?

Asthma often, but not exclusively, begins in childhood. It’s a chronic condition – meaning although some children do ‘grow out’ of asthma, most will have the condition throughout their lives. But with the right management, most people suffer few asthma symptoms until they experience an asthma attack.

Symptoms of asthma

  • Cough
  • Wheezing
  • Tight chest
  • Breathlessness

Symptoms are often worse in the evenings and early mornings. They will also be worse if exposed to an individual’s asthma triggers. But if it’s well controlled, many people may not experience any symptoms until their asthma is triggered.

What is an asthma attack?

If asthma symptoms get significantly worse - often within a short period of time - this is known as an asthma attack. This leads to symptoms of:

  • Severe coughing, wheezing, tight chest and breathlessness
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fast heart rate
  • Fast breathing rate
  • Lightheadedness
  • Exhaustion
  • If very severe, collapse

Asthma triggers

Asthma attacks and flare-ups usually happen in response to certain triggers. Common asthma triggers include:

  • Allergies (animal fur, pollen, dust etc.)
  • Exercise
  • Cold weather
  • Mould or damp
  • Smoke
  • Pollution
  • Infections like a cold or flu
  • Certain medications, like ibuprofen

Asthma treatments

It’s important to identify someone’s specific asthma triggers and avoid these.

If this is not possible, or symptoms are carrying on, asthma inhalers are prescribed. Inhalers come in two forms:

  • ‘Reliever’ inhaler – Used to improve and relieve asthma symptoms
  • ‘Preventer’ inhaler – Used regularly every day to prevent symptoms occurring in the first place

Generally, if a reliever inhaler is needed more than three times a week, the asthma is not well-controlled.

There are various strengths of preventer inhaler which would be prescribed by a GP, depending on the severity of someone’s asthma symptoms. There are also combination inhalers that work as both a preventer and a reliever. This is available for those with more severe asthma symptoms.

It’s important that an inhaler is being used with the right technique, or the medication will not reach the lungs effectively. has a good resource to check this.

Some people with severe asthma symptoms also need an oral medication called montelukast to keep it under control.

If an asthma attack happens, oral steroid medication may be required to control the symptoms. If an asthma attack is severe, the patient should be assessed in A&E.

Asthma sufferers should have a yearly review of asthma control with a GP or practice nurse, and should also be given a personal ‘asthma plan’ so they know what to do if asthma symptoms are uncontrolled, or if an asthma attack occurs.

When to see a GP

  • If you think you may have asthma and need a diagnosis
  • If you’re using your reliever inhaler more than 3 times a week
  • If your asthma symptoms are preventing you exercising, waking you from sleep, or preventing you carrying out your normal activities
  • If you think you’re having an asthma exacerbation, but are not struggling for breath or having any difficulty breathing. If you’re having difficulty breathing you should go to A&E immediately for assessment and treatment.
Reviewed by:

Dr Rhianna McClymont

Lead GP at Livi

Last updated: