Asthma is a common long-term medical condition that can cause coughing, wheezing, chest tightness and breathlessness.
The severity of these symptoms differs from person to person. Asthma can be controlled well in most people most of the time, although some people may have more persistent issues.
Occasionally, asthma symptoms can grow gradually or suddenly worse. This is known as an “asthma attack”, although doctors sometimes use the term “exacerbation”.
Severe attacks may need hospital treatment and can be life threatening, although this is not usual.
What causes asthma?
Asthma is caused by inflammation of the small tubes, known as bronchi, which carry air in and out of the lungs. If you have asthma, the bronchi will get inflamed and more sensitive than normal.
When you come into contact with something that irritates your lungs – referred to as a trigger – your airways become narrow, the muscles around them tighten, and there is an increase in the production of sticky mucus (phlegm).
Common asthma triggers include:
- house dust mites
- animal fur
- cigarette smoke
- viral infections
Asthma may also get triggered by substances (allergens or chemicals) inhaled while at work. Speak to your care provider if you think your symptoms are worse at work and get better on holiday.
The reason why some people have asthma is not fully understood, although it is known that you are more likely to begin if you have a family history of the condition.
Asthma can start at any age, including in young children and elderly people.
Who is affected?
In the UK, around 5.4 million people are currently getting treatment for asthma.
That’s the equivalent of 1 in every 12 adults and 1 in every 11 children. Asthma in adults is more common in women than men.
How asthma is treated
While there is no known cure for asthma, there are a number of treatments that can assist control the condition.
Treatment is based on two vital goals, which are:
- relieving symptoms
- preventing future symptoms and attacks
For most people, this will involve the occasional – or, more commonly, daily – use of medications, usually taken using an inhaler. However, identifying and avoiding possible triggers is also vital.
You should have a personal asthma action plan agreed with your doctor or nurse that includes information about the medicines you need to take, how to recognise when your symptoms are getting worse, and what steps to take when they do so.
For many people, asthma is a long-term condition – particularly if it first begins in adulthood.
Asthma symptoms are usually controllable and reversible with treatment, although some people with long-lasting asthma may start permanent narrowing of their airways and more persistent problems.
For children diagnosed with asthma, the condition may disappear or improve during the teenage years, although it can return later in life. Moderate or severe childhood asthma is more likely to persist or return later on.