Asthma is a chronic (long-term) condition for many people, particularly if it starts when you’re an adult. Children with asthma may see symptoms improve or go away during their teenage years but asthma may come back in adulthood.
Asthma causes your airways to become hypersensitive to certain things, which trigger an inflammatory reaction. The airway lining becomes irritated, inflamed and narrowed, and may produce extra mucus. This restricts 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.
Asthma symptoms vary from person to person. You may have:
You may notice that symptoms get worse:
Breathing in cold, damp air can also trigger asthma symptoms.
Other conditions can cause symptoms similar to asthma. However, your symptoms are more likely to be caused by asthma if they:
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.
Asthma attacks can occur suddenly or gradually over a few days. Symptoms of a severe asthma attack include:
You may also faint from a severe asthma attack.
It is important to track your symptoms and keep your doctor informed as asthma often changes over time. Your treatment may therefore need adjusting.
Your doctor will ask you about:
They will also check if you have an airway infection, which could be causing your symptoms.
They may perform tests to check your breathing and lung function. These include:
You may also need an X-ray to check your lungs.
The exact cause of asthma is not known, although genetics, pollution and modern hygiene levels have been suggested as causes — there is currently not enough evidence to support these suggestions.
The airways of people with asthma are hypersensitive, which makes them prone to inflammation. Inflammation causes the airways to temporarily narrow, which makes breathing in and out difficult. This can happen randomly or can be triggered by:
Asthma can also be brought on by exercise, stress or strong emotions.
Your risk of developing asthma is also higher if you:
Your risk is also higher if your mother smoked while pregnant with you.
You may develop asthma after being exposed to certain substances as part of your work. This is called occupational asthma. Common causes of occupational asthma include exposure to:
Certain jobs put you at greater risk of being exposed to these substances, including being an:
Currently, there is no cure for asthma. However, there are effective treatments to control your symptoms so they don’t have a big impact on your life.
You’ll usually be prescribed asthma inhalers. There are two types:
Sometimes you may be prescribed a combination inhaler. These are used daily to prevent symptoms and if symptoms occur, to provide long-lasting relief. Side effects are similar to those for preventer and reliever inhalers.
If using an inhaler alone is not controlling your symptoms, your doctor may prescribe tablets as well.
If your symptoms don’t improve, you’ll be referred to a respiratory consultant. They can provide other treatments, such as:
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 needed.
You can also reduce the chances of an asthma attack by:
There is no evidence that having asthma increases your risk of catching coronavirus.
If you do catch coronavirus and have severe asthma or asthma that is not well controlled, you may be at higher risk of more serious illness.
During the pandemic, you should continue to get your routine asthma care.
Having asthma doesn't prevent you from leading a normal life. There are simple things you can do to control your symptoms, including:
If you are pregnant and your asthma is getting worse, speak to your doctor. In most cases, treatment will remain the same and your symptoms will improve. However, poorly controlled asthma during pregnancy increases the risk of complications, such as pre-eclampsia and premature birth. You may therefore need to take extra precautions during labour to avoid having an asthma attack, although asthma attacks in labour are rare.
Asthma can usually be well-controlled. However, it is a serious condition that needs monitoring. You should follow your treatment plan and let your doctor know if your symptoms are getting worse.
Poorly controlled asthma can cause:
Your risk of severe asthma attacks is also higher, which can be life-threatening.