Asthma is a condition that causes swelling and inflammation inside the airways of the lungs. This inflammation and swelling is there to a greater or lesser degree all the time in people with asthma. The more inflammation there is the harder it becomes to breathe. People with asthma also have over-sensitive airways, so their airways react to triggers that do not affect other people. When sufferers come into contact with something that irritates their airways (a trigger), it can cause their airways to narrow. This happens in three ways:
Asthma is very common with over 5 million people in the UK receiving treatment
The most common symptoms of asthma are:
As asthma is a variable condition, symptoms may vary depending on the time of day and from season to season. Not everyone with asthma will experience all of the symptoms described above. Everyone’s asthma is different and triggers for asthma vary between asthmatics. Apart from asthma, there are also other causes for persistent coughing, shortness of breath, chest tightness or wheeze. So if you experience these symptoms; it is important that you make an appointment to see your doctor for advice.
It is important to identify what triggers your asthma. The first part of managing your asthma is avoiding triggers so that you can reduce unnecessary symptoms. Triggers vary between individuals and individuals may have more than one trigger. The commonest triggers of asthma are:
Levels are likely to be higher during hot sunny days or in cities.
Allergy is one of the commonest triggers and one of the most important. Allergens (substances that cause an allergic reaction) that trigger asthma include: grass pollen, tree pollen, house dust mites, and pets. Food allergy can be responsible but is less common. It is essential to determine whether allergies trigger your asthma, as reducing the levels of allergen you are exposed to may improve your asthma.
Rhinitis-Colds, flu and chest infection
Most asthma patients also have rhinitis- ask your doctor to check you for this as treatment can improve asthma control. Colds are another common trigger of asthma. Annual flu vaccinations are recommended for all asthmatics. More severe asthmatics requiring regular steroid tablets should talk to their doctor about also receiving the pneumoccocal vaccination.
Laughter, excitement, fear or anger can bring on symptoms
Some people with asthma may develop wheezing, shortness of breath or coughing during or after exercise. This is often a sign that asthma is poorly controlled. Therefore if you develop symptoms of asthma whilst exercising you should visit your doctor, so that your asthma control can be reviewed.
Some people with asthma are sensitive to aspirin, ibuprofen, diclofenac and other drugs in the NSAID family. Other medicines that can sometimes trigger asthma include beta-blockers used to treat heart conditions and glaucoma and certain cold and flu remedies. When you are buying medicine at the chemists or when the doctor is prescribing a medicine for you always inform them that you have asthma.
Smoke contains thousands of chemicals which irritate the lungs. Most smokers find that their asthma will be worse in a smoky environment.
Changes in temperature or a cold spell can trigger asthma in susceptible individuals. Heavy thunderstorms have been shown to increase the risk of asthma attacks.
If you are allergic and are exposed to a particular allergen, (e.g. grass pollen, house dust mite, cat, moulds) it may trigger an asthma attack. There are two main ways in which allergy contributes to worsening asthma:
It can be helpful to determine whether allergies do trigger your asthma as if you can reduce exposure to triggering allergens your asthma may improve and your need for medication may decrease. Therefore after taking your history, your doctor may perform skin prick tests or blood tests (RAST) for allergen-specific IgE to look for antibodies to allergens. Both skin prick tests and RAST tests have been medically proven to help diagnose an allergy.
There is no cure for asthma but fortunately, there are excellent treatments. With correct management, most individuals can enjoy an active lifestyle and carry out day-to-day activities with no symptoms.
Medications to treat asthma can be divided into three groups:
Signs that your asthma is well-controlled include:
There are lots of things you can do to improve the management of your asthma: