Asthma is a long-term lung condition that causes a person’s airways to narrow and swell, which can make it difficult to breathe. According to the National Institute for Health and Excellence (NICE), approximately 160,000 people are diagnosed with asthma in the UK each year.

However, while it can sometimes be tricky to navigate, with the right treatment and lifestyle approach, most people with asthma are able to enjoy normal, active lives.

With this in mind, we’ll be covering exactly what asthma is and who’s at risk, as well as offering some ways to cope.

What is asthma?

What is asthma

Asthma is a chronic lung condition caused by inflammation of the airways, which can lead to occasional breathing problems.

During normal breathing, air travels through a person’s nose or mouth, down into the throat and airways, and eventually into the lungs.

However, asthma can cause the breathing tubes responsible for carrying air in and out of the lungs to swell up, temporarily narrow, and become highly sensitive to allergens. Sometimes, mucus can fill the airways too. Altogether, these factors limit the amount of air able to pass through airways and can make breathing difficult.

Asthma symptoms can come on randomly or after exposure to a certain trigger. Common asthma triggers include allergies (for example, to animal fur, dust mites, or pollen), exercise, smoke, pollution, cold air, and infections like colds or flu.

Identifying asthma triggers and taking steps to avoid them can help people to manage their symptoms.

What are the symptoms of asthma?

Some of the most common symptoms of asthma include…

  • Breathlessness
  • Wheezing (a whistling or squealing sound when breathing)
  • Tightness in the chest, which can feel like a band is tightening around it
  • Coughing

Other symptoms of asthma can include fatigue, difficulty talking, trouble sleeping, rapid breathing, and feeling panicked or anxious.

Asthma symptoms can sometimes be mistaken for other causes. However, symptoms are more likely to be caused by asthma if they…

  • Occur often and keep coming back
  • Are worse at night and first thing in the morning
  • Appear to happen in response to common asthma triggers, such as exercise or allergies like animal fur and pollen

When asthma symptoms get temporarily worse for a short period of time, it’s known as an asthma attack. Asthma attacks can happen suddenly, gradually, or over a few days.

Signs of a severe asthma attack include…

  • Coughing, wheezing, and chest tightness becoming severe and constant
  • Being too breathless to eat, speak, or sleep
  • Fast heartbeat and fast breathing
  • Drowsiness, dizziness, confusion, or exhaustion
  • Blue fingers or lips
  • Fainting

The severity of asthma attacks varies significantly from person to person, but can be dangerous, as data shows they’re responsible for three deaths every day in the UK.

According to the NHS, many of these deaths could be avoided. You can read more information about what to do during an asthma attack here.

What are the risk factors for developing asthma?

Asthma can affect people of all ages. While it most commonly begins in childhood, it can also develop for the first time in adults.

In children, it’s not unusual for the condition to go away or improve during teenage years. However, it can sometimes return later in life. Asthma is more likely to become a long-term condition if it first develops during adulthood.

According to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), there are some risk factors that make a person more likely to develop and maintain asthma. These include…

  • Personal or family history of atopic disease – for example, asthma, eczema, allergic conjunctivitis, and allergic rhinitis
  • Respiratory infections during childhood
  • Obesity
  • Exposure to tobacco smoke (including prenatally)
  • Exposure to certain substances in the workplace such as flour, wood dust, and isocyanates from paint
  • Premature birth and associated low birth weight

When should you see a GP?

When should you see a GP

It’s important to visit your GP if you suspect you may have asthma.

There are a number of other conditions that can cause similar symptoms, such as general allergies and acid reflux, so it’s important to receive a proper diagnosis.

GPs are usually able to diagnose asthma by asking people about their symptoms and carrying out some simple tests.

Tests include…

  • FeNO test – breathing into a machine that measures the amount of nitric oxide in a person’s breath, which can indicate inflammation in the lungs.
  • Spirometry – involves blowing into a machine that measures how quickly someone can breathe out and how much air they can hold in their lungs.
  • Peak flow test – involves blowing into a handheld device that measures how quickly someone can breathe out. This test may be done several times over the course of a few weeks to see if results change over time.

However, if anything’s unclear your GP may refer you to a specialist. For more information on how asthma is diagnosed, head over to the NHS website.

How is asthma treated?

How is asthma treated

While there’s currently no cure for asthma, there are treatments available that can help manage symptoms.

Asthma is usually treated by using an inhaler – a small device that allows patients to breathe in medicines.

The main types of inhalers are…

  • Reliever inhalers – taking effect within a few minutes, these are used to quickly relieve asthma symptoms for short periods of time. If you need to use a reliever inhaler three or more times a week, your GP or asthma nurse may suggest additional treatment. 

    Reliever inhalers rarely cause side effects but can sometimes cause shaking or a faster heartbeat in the minutes after they’re used.
  • Preventer inhalers – used daily to help prevent asthma symptoms from occuring in the first place. Preventer inhalers work by reducing inflammation and sensitivity in the airways.

    It’s important to use preventer inhalers even when symptoms aren’t present. The majority of people who use reliever inhalers will also need a preventer inhaler too.

    Preventer inhalers don’t usually cause side effects but can sometimes lead to fungal infections of the throat or mouth, a sore throat, or hoarse voice.
  • Combination inhalers – may be required when asthma symptoms are unmanageable using reliever and preventer inhalers alone. Combination inhalers are used every day to help prevent the onset of symptoms and to offer long-lasting relief if they do occur.

    Again, it’s important to use combination inhalers regularly, even if you don’t have symptoms. Side effects of combination inhalers are similar to those of reliever and preventer inhalers.

Asthma and Lung UK has more information on different inhalers and how to use them.

Some people may also need to take tablets if using an inhaler alone isn’t helping to manage their symptoms. In more serious cases, treatment such as injections, surgery, and complementary therapies may also be required.

You can find more information about how asthma is treated on the NHS website.

What are the potential complications of asthma?

The majority of people with asthma are able to manage their symptoms and lead normal, active lives. However, in more severe cases, or if asthma symptoms aren’t well managed, the condition can lead to a number of other problems.

For example, poorly managed asthma can lead to problems such as…

  • Feeling tired all the time
  • Stress, anxiety, or depression
  • Absence from, or underperformance at, work
  • Disruption to everyday work and leisure routines due to unplanned visits to the hospital or your GP.
  • Lung infections (pneumonia)

As mentioned above, severe asthma attacks can also be life threatening. For this reason, it’s important to follow an appropriate treatment plan and never ignore symptoms if you notice them getting worse.

6 ways to manage symptoms of asthma

Alongside treatment such as inhalers and tablets, there are a number of things you can do to help manage your symptoms if you have asthma.

We’ll cover some of these below.

1. Make your home environment more asthma friendly

Identifying and minimising common triggers can make a huge difference to how asthma-friendly your home is. Things to lookout for include pet fur, dust mites, mold, chemical irritants such as cleaning agents and air fresheners, and cigarette smoke.

Useful tips include creating pet-free zones in your home (such as the bedrooms), mopping, vacuuming, and washing bedding frequently, and putting dust mite covers on mattresses and pillows.

Check out Better Health’s article on how to create an asthma-friendly home for more ideas.

2. Stay active

Since asthma can make breathing difficult, it’s understandable that people with the condition may have concerns about exercising. However, it’s still important to stay active if you have asthma – not only for overall health but to keep your lungs healthy too.

This study found that being more active was associated with significantly better asthma control. Those who exercised the most (approximately 30 minutes most days of the week) were 2.5 times more successful at controlling their asthma compared to those who weren’t physically active.

Plus, staying active is key in maintaining a healthy weight and reducing your risk of conditions such as obesity and type 2 diabetes, which can worsen asthma symptoms.

Experts advise starting out with low-impact exercise such as walking, yoga, and Tai Chi. That being said, if you have asthma, it’s important to seek the advice of your GP before adding any new physical activity to your routine. They can help with managing asthma symptoms so that you feel more confident about exercising.

3. Prioritise good quality sleep

Getting enough good quality sleep is essential for overall health – including asthma management. Not getting enough sleep on a regular basis can weaken your immune system,which plays a key role in lung health.

This study found that people who got too little or too much sleep reported having more asthma attacks and a lower quality of life due to asthma symptoms, compared to those who slept for the advised amount of time.

If you’re currently struggling to get enough good quality sleep, you’ll find some useful tips in the sleep and fatigue section of our website.

4. Quit smoking

Not smoking is one of the most beneficial things you can do when it comes to asthma.

Studies have found that quitting smoking is linked with milder asthma symptoms, a reduced need for medications, and improved lung function and quality of life.

For support services to help you quit smoking, head over to the NHS website.

5. Take steps to manage stress levels

Stress and anxiety can sometimes trigger asthma symptoms, and equally, uncontrolled asthma can often be a source of stress and anxiety.

Therefore, taking steps to manage your stress levels through techniques such as mindfulness, breathing exercises, and other relaxation techniques can help to reduce the risk of stress-induced asthma symptoms.

6. Eat a healthy, balanced diet

While eating a healthy balanced diet may not necessarily prevent asthma, there’s evidence to suggest that it may help to reduce the severity of symptoms.

This study found that eating a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, and fibre improved asthma symptoms. On the other hand, research suggests that certain foods, such as those containing sulfates like processed potatoes, dried fruits, and wine – may worsen asthma symptoms.

Plus, eating a healthy diet contributes to overall health, and ultimately, the healthier you are, the stronger your immune system will be, which can help with handling asthma attacks.

For help with eating a healthy, balanced diet, experts recommend using the Mediterranean diet as a guide.

Final thoughts…

While there’s currently no cure for asthma, the good news is there are plenty of things that people can do to help manage their symptoms and enjoy a normal, active life.

For further reading, head over to the general health section of our website. Here you’ll find information on everything from bone health to diet tips and longevity.