Asthma is a long-term medical condition which affects the lungs and airways. With millions of children and adults affected, it is one of the most common conditions in the United Kingdom.
According to Asthma UK, 5.4 million people are currently receiving treatment for the condition. Of those affected, 4.3 million cases are adults and 1.1 million are children. These figures mean that asthma affects one in every 11 people, and one in five households across the country.
Every 10 seconds somebody is having a potentially life-threatening asthma attack in the UK. Each day, the lives of three families are devastated by the death of a loved one to an asthma attack.” – Asthma UK.
Sadly, 1484 people in the UK died as a result of an asthma attack in 2017 (the most recent available data). These statistics can be quite frightening, but research has shown that two thirds of asthma-related deaths are preventable with the right treatment and understanding.
You may have seen our in-depth guide to the medical conditions which affect older people. Today’s article focuses specifically on asthma. We’ll look at the symptoms, treatments and possible causes of the condition.
What Causes Asthma?
Sometimes, substances like pollen, dust, or smoke can irritate our airways. However, the airways of asthmatic people are already inflamed and sensitive to begin with. Therefore, irritants (asthma triggers) can cause several reactions in sufferers:
- Inflammation and swelling of the airways
- Buildup of sticky mucus or phlegm in the airways
- Tightening of muscles around the airways
All of these reactions narrow the space through which air can flow, which is what causes many of asthma’s core symptoms.
These reactions can occur as a result of asthma triggers, or at random. Common triggers also include animal fur, pollution, chest infections, certain medications, and even the weather. Asthma UK recognises several different categories of asthma:
- Allergic: triggered by allergens like pollen and dust.
- Seasonal: flares up at certain points in the year, often depending on weather and temperature.
- Occupational: a result of the work you do.
- Non-allergic: a rarer form of asthma, unrelated to allergy triggers.
Luckily, medication can be very effective at managing symptoms. However, around 4% of asthmatic people have ‘severe asthma’ which does not respond to the usual medication.
Anyone’s asthma can change over time, becoming more or less severe. Lots of mildly asthmatic children often find that their symptoms subside as they get older.
There are several symptoms of asthma, which vary from mild to more severe. Not everybody will experience every symptom all the time. The most common symptoms are:
- Wheezing – A whistling sound whilst you’re breathing.
- A tight chest.
Sometimes, your symptoms can become worse for a short period of time. This is commonly known as an asthma attack. These attacks can happen suddenly or gradually over a few days. They can be fatal, so it’s very important to be aware of the signs.
Symptoms of an Asthma Attack
- Your usual symptoms (coughing, wheezing, tight chest) are getting worse.
- Your reliever inhaler is not helping.
- You struggle to speak, eat, or sleep due to breathlessness.
- Your breath is getting faster/you feel like you can’t catch your breath.
What To Do If You Suffer an Asthma Attack
Every 10 seconds, someone in the UK has a potentially life-threatening asthma attack. Research has shown that, with the correct treatment, you can control your symptoms and reduce the risk.
If you think you’re having an asthma attack you need to follow these steps, suggested by the NHS:
- Sit upright and try to take slow, steady breaths. Do not lie down. Try to stay calm, as panicking can make it worse.
- Take one puff of your reliever inhaler (blue) every 30-60 seconds, up to a maximum of 10 puffs.
- Call 999 immediately if you don’t have your inhaler with you, if you feel worse despite using your inhaler, if you don’t feel any better after 10 puffs, or if you’re worried at any point.
- If an ambulance has not arrived after 15 minutes, repeat Step 2.
If your symptoms improve and you don’t require hospital treatment, you should still make an urgent appointment to see your GP or an asthma nurse.
Should you go to hospital, you will need to see your GP within 48 hours of being discharged. 1 in 6 people who receive treatment in hospital for an asthma attack need hospital care again within two weeks. Therefore, it’s very important to discuss how to reduce your risk.
Currently there is no cure for asthma. However, there are a range of effective treatments that help alleviate symptoms.
The most common form of treatment is an inhaler. There are two main types of inhalers:
- Reliever Inhaler – These can relieve symptoms for a short period of time. They are commonly blue.
- Preventer Inhaler – These reduce the inflammation in your breathing tubes. They need to be used twice daily in order to be most effective. They are commonly brown.
Some patients may be prescribed a ‘combination inhaler’. This includes a combination of a long-acting reliever and a corticosteroid preventer.
By using your inhaler correctly, you can manage your condition and reduce the chances of an attack. Taking your inhaler correctly will help with everyday tasks, such as walking up and down the stairs.
Your doctor or nurse will be able to show you the correct way to use your inhaler. You need use the right technique for the device to actually work effectively.
If your inhalers aren’t helping with your condition, your GP might prescribe additional medicines to help. The most common tablets used to help treat asthma include:
- Leukotriene Receptor Antagonists – These are taken once a day to help stop your airways from becoming inflamed. These tablets are also available as granules or syrup for children.
- Theophyllines – These help relax the muscles around the airways, making it easier to breathe.
- Steroids – These can be used as a short-term treatment for an asthma attack or a long-term treatment to control your symptoms.
Living with asthma
With the correct treatment, most asthmatic people can live normal lives. The most important factor is to keep your symptoms under control, by using your inhalers correctly and avoiding your triggers.
It’s important to work closely with your GP or nurse to make sure you’re using the proper inhaler technique. You should also be aware that some other medication may put you at risk. For example, some aspirin and ibuprofen may not be suitable for asthma sufferers. Always check the packet.
If you smoke, it is crucial that you quit immediately. Smoking is a known asthma trigger, which can cause severe and frequent symptoms. For help quitting, see our Stop Smoking guide.
Did you know that sports stars David Beckham and Bradley Wiggins have asthma? Regular exercise is a great way to manage your condition.
By raising your heart rate, you boost your lung power and improve stamina. While you might feel breathless in the short-term, frequent exercise can actually reduce how often you feel breathless overall. A healthy fitness regime also reduces the chances of a cold or cough, due to a boost to your immune system.
If you’re a little apprehensive, or if your asthma has been playing-up recently, it may be best to stick to moderate intensity activities. These include swimming, walking, yoga or team sports which allow you to take a rest between bursts of movement.
Before taking part, you should also make sure that:
- You have your inhaler with you.
- The people you are exercising / playing with know that you have asthma.
- You warm-up and cool down thoroughly.
If you notice symptoms at any point, you should stop, take your inhaler, and wait until you feel better before re-joining your activity.
If you are overweight, research indicates that losing weight could help you manage your condition. Losing excess weight can reduce symptoms and reduce your risk of an asthma attack. In addition, losing weight and having a healthy lifestyle can also reduce your risk of other conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.
Staying Safe At Home
A personal alarm can protect people who suffer from medical conditions such as asthma. If one of our alarm users feels unwell or suffers a fall, they simply need to press their pendant button. Our 24/7 Emergency Response Team will answer the call and send help immediately.
For more information on our life-saving personal alarms, please speak to one of our friendly advisors on 0800 999 0400. Alternatively, complete our Ccontact Us form and we will contact you as soon as possible.
Having asthma qualifies you for VAT Exemption when you order a personal alarm from Lifeline24. If you are asthmatic (or you are buying an alarm for somebody else who is) then you will not have to pay any VAT on your Lifeline alarm.
Editor’s Note: This article was updated on 17 August 2020 to reflect current information.
Originally published May 2018.