Asthma: signs and symptoms

30 January 2015

Asthma has been recently been highlighted in the press, emphasising the importance of the correct diagnosis.

Dr Julius Cairn, consultant respiratory physician as Spire Harpenden, discusses asthma, explaining the causes, symptoms and what to do if you think you might have it.

What is asthma?

If you have asthma your airways or bronchi, which are hollow tubes that help transport air in and out of the lung, become inflamed and very sensitive. This leads to a contraction of the smooth muscle in the wall of the airway and consequently narrowing of the airway. The inflammation can also result in the build up of mucus within the centre of the airway and increased triggering of cough receptors.

What are the symptoms of asthma?

Symptoms include wheezing and a tight chest. As the airways narrow this can lead a high-pitched whistling sound or wheezing and to difficulty in moving air in and out of the lung, which causes breathlessness.

Can you develop asthma at any age?

Asthma can develop for the first time in people of all ages. It is more commonly associated with allergy (atopic asthma) in children than in adults. Around a third of children with asthma will go on to have asthma as an adult. Approximately 5.4 million people in the UK receive treatment for asthma, which is the equivalent of one in 12 adults and one in 11 children.

Can you cure asthma?

Although asthma can’t be cured it can be well controlled with medication. This is usually administered in the form of inhalers. One type of medication used are smooth muscle relaxants, which open up the narrowed airways, such as Salbutamol. However this only works for a few hours before its benefits wear off. The other important medication is inhaled corticosteroids, which are taken regularly, usually twice a day, as a preventative treatment. This is an anti-inflammatory medication and so really targets the root of the problem.

Are there any triggers for asthma?

If asthma isn’t well controlled with daily medication and/or a significant irritant such as a respiratory viral infection affects a patient then they can develop a “flare-up” of symptoms, which is otherwise known as an exacerbation or asthma “attack”.

This requires urgent medical review and can require additional medication, such as oral corticosteroids as a rescue treatment. Other triggers that can make asthma generally worse are tobacco smoke, air pollution, allergies, exposure to cold dry air during exercise and heightened emotions. It is also possible to develop occupational asthma but this is less common and requires specialist assessment.

Patients can monitor the progress of their asthma using a peak flow meter as well as their symptoms.

How can you diagnose asthma?

In order to diagnose asthma, doctors assess patients’ symptoms, clinical examination findings such as wheeze and they can use breathing measurements such as spirometry and a patient’s diary of home peak flow measurements.

What should I do if I think I’ve got asthma?

If you think that you are experiencing the symptoms, which are described above, then I would recommend that you initially contact your GP for assessment or alternatively if you prefer then please contact Spire Harpenden Hospital to book an appointment.


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