Asthma is when your airways are hypersensitive and easily become inflamed (swollen) and narrowed, making it sometimes difficult to breathe.

By Wallace Health I Medically reviewed by Adrian Roberts.
Page last reviewed: October 2018 I Next review due: October 2021

What is asthma?

Asthma is a chronic (long-term) condition when your airways become hypersensitive to certain things which trigger an inflammatory reaction. The airway lining becomes irritated, inflamed and narrowed, restricting the flow of air in and out of your lungs.

Asthma is common and affects over five million people in the UK. It often starts in childhood, but adults can get it too.

You’re more likely to get asthma if you or someone in your family has another allergic (atopic) condition, such as hay fever or eczema.

Asthma symptoms range from mild, where you may not be too bothered by them, to severe, which can even be life-threatening.

Most people can manage their condition with asthma inhalers.

How to tell if you have asthma

You may have these asthma symptoms:

You may notice that symptoms get worse:

  • At night
  • With exercise
  • If you breathe in smoke or fumes
  • When you have a cold

Breathing in cold, damp air can also trigger asthma symptoms, which can be a problem with the weather.

If you’re having extreme difficulty in breathing, or your symptoms are suddenly worse, you may be having an asthma attack and should seek immediate medical help.

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about symptoms

You can book an appointment with a Spire private GP today.

Diagnosis and tests for asthma

Your doctor will ask you about:

  • When you get symptoms and if anything makes them worse
  • If you have a family history of asthma or related conditions such as hay fever or eczema
  • If your work involves breathing in smoke, dust or fumes
  • Any medicines you’re taking. Some anti-inflammatory pain killers can make asthma symptoms worse

They’ll also check in case you have an airway infection which could be causing your symptoms.

They may perform tests to check your breathing and lung function. These include:

  • FeNO test
  • Peak expiratory flow meter
  • Spirometry

You may also need an X-ray to check your lungs.

Causes of asthma

There are different triggers. These include:

  • Allergies, to pollen or animal fur
  • Smoke or air pollution
  • Cold, damp air

Asthma can also be brought on by:

  • Exercise
  • Stress or emotions

Common treatments for asthma

You’ll usually be prescribed asthma inhalers. There are two types:

  • Reliever inhalers are used only when you need them to calm asthma symptoms – they contain beta-antagonists which quickly open up your airway by relaxing the muscles that are causing them to contract
  • Steroid (preventer) inhalers – used regularly, these reduce inflammation in your airways

If your symptoms don’t improve, you’ll be referred to a respiratory consultant. They’ll be able to give you other treatments.

You’ll need a follow-up appointment with your doctor once a year to check your asthma is under control and make changes to your medication if required.

You can also reduce the chances of an asthma attack by:

  • Avoiding triggers
  • Using inhalers before you exercise
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Having an annual flu jab
  • Stopping smoking