What is asthma?

Asthma is a condition that affects the airways in the lungs, making it difficult to breathe. In people with asthma, the airways are sensitive and inflamed, and often become narrowed when exposed to certain triggers.

The precise causes of asthma are not understood, but you’re more at risk if you suffer from other allergic conditions such as hay fever or eczema. Other risk factors for asthma include:

  • A family history of asthma or allergies
  • Having bronchiolitis (a lung infection) as a child
  • Being exposed to tobacco smoke when you were in the womb or when you were a baby or child
  • Being born prematurely
  • Certain work environments

Asthma is more common in children, however you can also develop it as an adult. If you develop it in adulthood, it’s more like to be a long-term condition. If you have it in childhood, there’s a chance that your condition will improve or even disappear altogether as you get older.

Most people with asthma will need to use two inhalers – a preventer and a reliever – and track their symptoms and triggers in a personalised asthma action plan.

What are the symptoms of asthma?

Asthma is characterised by wheezing, breathlessness, tightness in the chest, and coughing. These symptoms are more likely to indicate asthma if they are recurring, become worse at night and in the morning, and often seem to be set off by a trigger such as exercise or dust. An onset of more severe symptoms is known as an asthma attack. The symptoms of a severe asthma attack include:

  • Severe and constant wheezing and coughing
  • Severe tightness in the chest
  • Breathlessness that prevents you from eating, speaking or sleeping
  • Needing to breathe faster
  • A quick heartbeat
  • Drowsiness and exhaustion
  • Confusion and dizziness
  • Blue lips and fingers
  • Falling unconscious

If you are having a severe asthma attack it is important you seek urgent emergency medical attention by calling 999.

What medicines are prescribed for asthma?

Normally people with asthma have a reliever inhaler, which is blue, and a preventer inhaler, which comes in a variety of colours. A reliever helps to treat asthma symptoms, while a preventer stops the symptoms from arising in the first place.

It might be that your asthma is mild and you only need a reliever inhaler. However it’s normally recommended that you start using a preventer if you’re using your reliever three or more times a week. With the correct preventer medication you should rarely need your reliever.

If you use a preventer, you should use it every single day, exactly as directed by your doctor. If you stop using it, the preventative effect will wear off and symptoms will return.

It may be helpful to see a nurse or a doctor to check how you are using your inhalers. Incorrect or poor technique can lead to the medicines not reaching the airways and not being fully effective.

If your asthma is more severe you may need to take tablets, or receive injections from an asthma specialist.

Find out more about asthma inhalers and treatments by booking an online consultation with Doctor Care Anywhere.

How else should asthma be managed?

Keeping your asthma under control requires lifestyle changes as well as the use of your prescription medications. Once you’ve received a diagnosis you’ll need to make an asthma action plan with your doctor or asthma nurse. This is a paper record listing your medicines and asthma triggers, and giving guidance on how to notice if your asthma is getting worse and what to do in the event of an asthma attack.

Lifestyle changes recommended for people with asthma include:

  • Quitting smoking – this can significantly reduce severe symptoms
  • Exercising regularly – with the right medication you should be able to exercise without getting symptoms
  • Getting vaccinated – certain vaccines, e.g. the flu jab, are more vital for asthma sufferers

You should also make an effort to reduce exposure to your asthma triggers. Common triggers include:

  • Allergies e.g. to pollen, dust, animal dander
  • Infections e.g. colds and the flu
  • Smoke and fumes
  • Mould and damp
  • Weather conditions e.g. wind, humidity, cold air, sudden temperature changes
  • Strong emotions e.g. feeling very stressed, laughing a lot
  • Certain medicines e.g. ibuprofen and aspirin
  • Exercise

If your asthma is well managed by your prescription medication, your triggers should have less impact.

Content reviewed by Jemma Shafier, a Doctor Care Anywhere GP