What is asthma?
Asthma is a very common lung condition that affects the airways and therefore affects people’s breathing. While it often starts in childhood, it can come on in adulthood too. About 1 in every 12 adults and 1 in every 11 children have it. For most people it’s a life-long condition. During an asthma attack the muscles around the airways tighten and this causes them to become very narrow. This means it’s harder to get enough air into the lungs. At the same time, the lining of the airways swells and starts to produce thick mucus, which further makes it hard to breathe. This causes the main symptoms of asthma – difficulty breathing, wheeze, coughing and tightness of the chest. If the attack doesn’t pass or treatment isn’t given to reverse the reaction, people will struggle to breathe. This can be incredibly frightening and also very dangerous as oxygen levels in the body drop. There is a myth that asthma is not that serious. In fact, more than 3 people die from asthma attacks every day in the UK and that the vast majority of these deaths are avoidable.
What causes asthma?
Exactly what causes asthma isn’t clear. Factors such as genetics, air pollution and modern hygiene standards have been suggested but it’s still not proven. We do know that asthma tends to run in families and people with a history of allergies, hay fever and eczema are more likely to have it. Common triggers for an asthma attack include chest infections including colds or flu, allergens such as pet hair or dust mites, cigarette smoke, pollution, certain medications such as aspirin, ibuprofen and beta-blockers, sudden changes in temperature as well as emotions such as stress or laughter.
How is asthma treated?
There’s no cure for asthma, but it can be controlled with medication. There are several types which work in different ways. The majority of asthma medications are given through an inhaler. There are three main types – preventer inhalers (usually orange or brown coloured) contain steroids and are taken every day and reduce any inflammation in the airways. The second type are short-acting reliever inhalers (usually blue coloured). These work quickly and are taken when someone starts to get symptoms. They relax the airways, making it easier to breathe. The third is a combination of the first two and are taken every day to stop asthma symptoms from occurring and help the airways to relax. They are usually purple or maroon coloured. Sometimes inhalers aren’t enough and people will have to take tablets which also work by relaxing the airways.
What can the patient do?
If you have asthma, then ensuring that you have your inhalers on you at all times is very important. It’s also important that you take them as prescribed – people will sometimes miss their regular inhalers that work to prevent the asthma, because they don’t have symptoms so don’t think they need them. In fact, they are working which is why you don’t have symptoms! It’s also important to understand your triggers and avoid these as best as possible. Stopping smoking is also very helpful as is taking regular exercise. You should also make sure you are fully vaccinated including having the yearly flu jab.
As a trigger can be certain medications, always make sure you mention that you have asthma to a doctor if they are prescribing you a new medication. If you see someone having an asthma attack, help them find their inhaler. Don’t’ hesitate to get medical help if they can’t find it or don’t have it.