Asthma is a common disease - it affects about five million people in the UK. Asthma often starts in childhood, but it can happen for the first time at any age – even in people in their 70s or 80s.
Asthma affects the airways – the tubes carrying air in and out of the lungs. People with asthma have sensitive airways which become irritated in some situations. The airways become narrow and sometimes produce more mucus than usual. This makes it difficult to breathe.
Asthma may get better or disappear completely during teenage years. But about one third of children with asthma will go on to have problems as an adult. Asthma can run in families, but many people with asthma do not have relatives with the condition.
Asthma can’t be cured, but it can be controlled so that attacks can be prevented. Most people with asthma who receive proper treatment (and take it correctly) can lead normal lives. You do not have to lose time from school or work, and you can enjoy full involvement in sport and other activities.
What do the lungs do?
To understand asthma you need to know what the lungs do. When we breathe in, air moves into the lungs, getting oxygen into the bloodstream. Our blood circulates round our bodies, delivering oxygen to where it’s needed.
At the same time, our blood collects the waste product carbon dioxide and takes it back to the lungs. The lungs get rid of carbon dioxide by mixing it with the air we breathe out. Air gets in and out of the lungs through a series of tubes, which are often called the airways.
What happens in asthma?
When you have asthma, your airways are irritable because they are inflamed. This makes them more likely to become narrow, which makes it harder to get air in and out of the lungs. For some people, this happens all the time. For others, only when they are having an asthma attack.
The symptoms of asthma are shortness of breath, wheezing and a tight feeling in the chest. Symptoms are often worse at night.
What causes asthma?
Although we do not know what causes asthma, we do know that many factors contribute. For instance, there is more and more evidence that allergies are a factor, especially if you are under 16.
What makes asthma worse?
On many occasions asthma gets worse for no obvious reason. This is sometimes known as an asthma attack. Some things – called ‘triggers’ - which can make asthma worse are:
- The common cold - the effects of a cold can last for a long time unless you are given increased treatment. Asthma attacks are often set off by allergies. Common things which people with asthma are allergic to are grass pollen, house dust and animal fur (including your own pets).
- Exercise - running, particularly in cold weather, can cause an asthma attack. However, exercise-induced asthma can be controlled. People with asthma should not avoid sport and exercise - they contribute to overall good health.
- Irritants - like tobacco smoke, fumes and a dusty atmosphere will often lead to asthma attacks.
- Emotion – anger, anxiety or happiness – can bring on an attack of wheezing in some people with asthma. But it is not true that ‘nerves’ are the underlying cause of asthma.
- Pollution - especially from traffic, is increasingly recognised as making asthma worse.
Most tablets and medicines are very safe if you have asthma. However, if you have high blood pressure or angina, some medication (such as beta-blockers) can make asthma worse. People with asthma should also avoid aspirin and ibuprofen. Even eye drops can provoke attacks. However, alternatives do exist. Check with your doctor or pharmacist if you are not sure, but never stop taking any medication suddenly without taking medical advice first.
What treatments are there for asthma?
Asthma can’t be cured, but with the right treatment most people with asthma can lead normal lives. Many treatments are available, often given as an inhaler (or puffer), or sometimes in tablet form.
Some treatments are for rapid relief of symptoms (relievers). Others – such as inhaled steroids – must be taken regularly, whether or not you are feeling wheezy or short of breath (these are called preventers). Talk your treatment over with your doctor, practice nurse or pharmacist, and make sure you understand how it should be taken for the greatest benefit. And check that you know how to use your inhaler properly – a lot of people don’t!
How to recognise when your asthma is causing problems
It’s important to recognise when your asthma is getting worse so that you can get the right treatment. Asthma is often worse at night. One of the signs that you need more treatment is if you wake up during the night or in the early morning with wheezing, shortness of breath or coughing. If you are wheezy during the day and need to use your inhalers more frequently than usual, you should arrange to see your doctor/practice nurse or increase your treatment.
If you have a bad attack that is not relieved by your inhalers, and particularly if you have trouble talking, you should seek urgent treatment from your doctor/practice nurse or at the Accident and Emergency (Casualty) Department of your local hospital.
When you see your doctor/practice nurse about your asthma, s/he will usually ask you to blow into a small device called a peak flow meter. This can help show you how well your asthma is being controlled. People with asthma can measure peak flow with their own meter – this is particularly useful for people who often have attacks. It enables you to keep a close check on your condition and helps to warn when you need extra treatment and medical advice. This can form part of a plan of action, agreed between you and your doctor/practice nurse. This allows you to manage your own asthma.
This page was supplied by the British Lung Foundation
Other useful Links:
Asthma UK http://www.asthma.org.uk/