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What is it that’s taking your breath away?

30 April 2018

What is asthma?

Asthma is a long-term condition affecting an individual’s airways, causing them to be inflamed and ‘sensitive’. When an individual suffering with asthma comes into contact with something that irritates their sensitive airways (called triggers) their body reacts in three ways:

  • Muscles around the walls of the airways tighten so that the airways become narrower
  • The lining of the airways becomes inflamed and starts to swell
  • Sticky mucus or phlegm sometimes builds up, narrowing the airways further.

These reactions irritate and narrow airways – causing symptoms to flare up, resulting in difficulty breathing.

What are the symptoms?

The common symptoms of asthma include:

  • Wheezing
  • Coughing
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Shortness of breath

Although asthma is very manageable, if not treated it can be serious and lead to a potentially life-threatening asthma attack. Additionally, symptoms may come and go but asthma will always be there in the background, being a long-term condition.

Why did I get asthma?

Although it’s hard to say for sure what causes asthma, it’s known you’re more likely to develop asthma if you:

  • Have a family history of asthma, eczema or allergies
  • Had bronchiolitis as a child
  • Were born prematurely and/or had a low birth weight

It’s been found that one in 10 cases of asthma in adults is caused by work-related factors. Additionally, it is thought that the modern lifestyle may contribute to the increased number of people with asthma including housing, diet and hygienic environment.

What are the triggers?

There are many triggers that can flare up an asthma sufferers symptoms and the risk of an asthma attack.

  • Colds and viruses – speak to your GP or asthma nurse regarding the annual flu vaccination, usually offered between September and early November.
  • Smoking – chemicals in cigarettes cause inflammation and irritation in the airways and lungs.
  • Stress – during stressful periods your airways are more sensitive, in turn increasing your risk of asthma symptoms. Don’t forget to take your medication, even when you’re very busy.
  • Pollen – Roughly 80% of people with asthma also suffer with hay fever, meaning symptoms are triggered by pollen.
  • Hormones – Changes in a woman’s hormone levels for example during puberty, pregnancy or menopause, or before a period can affect their asthma symptoms.

What can I do?

  • Stay on top of your asthma – asthma is very manageable and shouldn’t hold you back from doing things you love doing if you take the right medicine(s).
  • Talk to your friends and family – if you’re feeling stressed, this can negatively impact your asthma symptoms, so make sure you discuss things that are getting you down.
  • Be organised with your medication – place it next to your toothbrush so don’t you forget! Keep on top on repeat prescriptions so you don’t find yourself without medication.
  • Tackle your smoking habits – if you do smoke, stop – it’s the single best thing you can do to make a huge difference in your asthma, alongside taking your medication.
  • Get emotional support when you need it – it’s not unusual for people with long-term conditions to feel a range of emotions, it may be worry or fear but everybody is here to help you.
  • Know your triggers – once you know your triggers you can figure out ways to avoid them or prevent symptoms.
  • Exercise – being fit and healthy can hugely benefit your asthma. Start off with something slow and not too vigorous if your asthma is severe and work your way up to more intense activity.

Dr Tim Chapman says: "Asthma should, and can be well controlled to prevent flares of the condition. Flares of asthma are best managed sooner rather than later (and therefore reduce risk of needing oral steroid therapy or even hospital admission) with a long-term aim to prevent complications such as persistent airway obstruction (causing chronic breathlessness) or bronchiectasis (causing a chronic productive cough and increased risk of chest infections). Essentially good control allows a good quality of life with no or little limitation to what you can do. In order to achieve this a holistic approach to asthma management is needed. One aspect involves understanding if there is an allergic component to the asthma. Knowing this allows access to some newer therapies, as well as broadening the range of the tried and tested therapies that are available. This can be tested through simple skin prick testing to see what you are allergic to.

"If there is no allergic component, there are still many different options to helping achieve good control of asthma. There are many different inhaler devices available with newer inhaled medications helping achieve good control. If needed, oral medication can bee added to help achieve this.

"One important part of asthma management is to look at the entire airway. By this, I mean to include the nose as well as the chest. There is a lot of evidence to support good rhinitis (nasal inflammation) control also improves asthma control, yet this is often an area that is often overlooked.

"Other important contributors to poor asthma control can include gastro-oesophageal reflux, inappropriate drug therapy, vocal cord problems and even sleep apnoea. Improved management of all these (if necessary) can make a marked improvement in asthma control, all of which can be easily investigated if a thorough medical history suggests these conditions may play a role.

"If you are asthmatic and experience worsening wheeze, breathlessness or cough, or need to take more of your reliever inhaler, it is likely that additional medical support and medication is required. Yet good knowledge of your own condition and knowing your asthma action plan (what to do if you experience a deterioration) can make a big difference to maintaining your own health and catching any flare early, before it gets too severe."

 

 

The content of this article is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the professional medical advice of your doctor or other health care professional.

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