What is asthma?
Asthma often, but not always, starts in childhood. It's a chronic condition, so although some children grow out of it, most will have asthma throughout their lives. With the correct management, most people can reduce asthma symptoms and live a normal life.
Symptoms of asthma
Symptoms are often worse in the evenings and early mornings and when you're exposed to certain irritants. Symptoms of asthma include:
If your asthma isn't well-controlled, it can cause more issues, including:
Stress, anxiety or depression
Delayed growth or puberty in children
What is an asthma attack?
If asthma symptoms get significantly worse, often within a short time, this is known as an asthma attack. It can cause:
Severe coughing, wheezing, tight chest and breathlessness
Fast heart rate
Fast breathing rate
Drowsiness, dizziness or confusion
Blue lips or fingertips
If very severe, you might collapse
Asthma attacks and flare-ups usually happen because of certain triggers. Common asthma triggers include:
Allergies like animal fur, pollen and dust
Mould or damp
Infections like a cold or flu
Certain medications like ibuprofen
There are several risk factors for getting asthma, including:
Having a related condition like eczema or food allergies
Family history of asthma
Getting bronchiolitis (a childhood lung infection)
Being around smoke as a child
Your mother smoking during pregnancy
Being born prematurely (before 37 weeks)
Having a low birth weight
Working in a job involving substances like spray paint, latex, wood dust and flour
If you think you might have asthma, there are several tests you can take, including:
FeNO test – a machine that sees how much nitric oxide is in your breath, which is a sign of inflammation in your lungs
Spirometry – you breathe into a machine that sees how quick you can breathe out and how much air you can hold in your lungs
Peak flow test – you breathe into a device that sees how quick you breathe out. This test is repeated over a few weeks
If you're diagnosed with asthma and think your symptoms may be triggered by an allergy, you may also have a chest X-ray or allergy tests.
Asthma inhalers come in three forms:
Reliever inhaler - Used to improve and relieve asthma symptoms. Generally, if a reliever inhaler is needed more than three times a week, the asthma isn't well controlled
Preventer inhaler- Used daily (usually twice) to stop symptoms from happening in the first place. There are various strengths of preventer inhaler prescribed by GPs, depending on the severity of your asthma symptoms
Combination inhaler – These work as both a preventer and a reliever for people with more severe asthma symptoms.
You must use your inhaler correctly, or the medication won't reach your lungs effectively. Asthma.org.uk has a good resource to check your technique.
Some people with severe asthma symptoms may also need oral medication to keep it under control. The main three options are:
Leukotriene receptor antagonists (LTRAs)
If nothing else is working, you may want to think about other treatments like:
Injections - These can help people with severe asthma control their symptoms. These are known as biologic therapies, which can only be prescribed by an asthma specialist, and they aren't suitable for everyone
Surgery - If your asthma is very severe, you might be offered surgery known as bronchial thermoplasty
How to manage asthma
There are lots of ways you can help yourself, including:
Avoiding your specific asthma triggers
Using your prescribed inhaler and medication correctly and routinely
Checking all new medicine is suitable for someone with asthma
Getting enough exercise (if your asthma is well managed, this shouldn't trigger your symptoms)
Getting regular check-ups
When to see a GP
People with asthma should have a yearly review of asthma control with a GP or practice nurse. You should also be given a personal asthma plan to know what to do if your asthma symptoms are uncontrolled or if an asthma attack happens.
See a GP if you:
Think you may have asthma and need a diagnosis
Are using your reliever inhaler more than three times a week
Experience symptoms that are stopping you from exercising or carrying out your normal activities or waking you from sleep
Think you're having an asthma attack but aren't struggling for breath or having any difficulty breathing
If you're having difficulty breathing, you should go to A&E immediately.
- Reviewed by:
- Dr Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP at Livi