What is asthma?
Asthma is a condition involving the airways, which are the tiny tubes carrying air in and out of the lungs. In asthma, the airways are affected in three different ways.
So the airways of someone suffering with asthma are different from those of someone who does not have asthma, even when they are not having an asthma attack.
When you come into contact with something you are allergic to, or an irritant, the muscles around the walls of the airways tighten, inflammation increases and more mucus is produced. The resulting narrowing of the airways produces asthma symptoms.
What are the symptoms of asthma?
The symptoms of asthma vary from person to person. The most common ones are:
These symptoms may be present more or less all the time, or just occasionally. They may come on without warning and you may have good days and bad days. In some people, especially children, a cough is the main symptom.
What is the difference between a trigger and an irritant?
A trigger is something that triggers your asthma. Everyone's asthma is different so people have different triggers. You may find you have several triggers and it is important to know exactly what they are. Common asthma triggers include:
Irritants tend to affect everyone with asthma and tend to have a more transient effect on asthma symptoms while triggers make asthma worse for a longer time period. Common irritants are cold air (especially going from a warm to a cold environment), cigarette smoke, chemical fumes and aerosol sprays.
What causes asthma?
It is not completely clear what causes asthma, but it is more likely if you have a family history of asthma, eczema or allergic disease. Asthma rates have been increasing in recent years, so it is speculated that some aspects of modern life, such as cleaning products or changes in diet, have contributed to this. It is known that smoking during pregnancy increases the risk of a child having asthma. Outdoor air pollution and exposure to chemicals in the workplace have also been shown to cause otherwise preventable asthma.
Asthma can start at any age, although it tends to start before the age of ten in around half of all cases. Childhood asthma is more likely in families with a history of allergy. A child may grow out of asthma but will have a higher chance of suffering from late-onset asthma. Late-onset asthma, starting in the 30s and beyond, may follow a chest infection or exposure to chemicals at home or in the workplace and is less likely to be allergy-related. To find out more visit our Asthma Causes information page.
How is asthma diagnosed?
The presence of the symptoms described above will make your doctor suspect asthma. Monitoring your lung function with a peak flow meter, a device that measures the flow of air out of the lungs will help confirm the diagnosis. If over a period of time, morning and evening peak flow readings vary by more than 15%, then an asthma diagnosis is likely. Another indicator of asthma is if asthma medication improves peak flow readings.
There are also more complicated lung function tests that can be done in the hospital which may help confirm the diagnosis.
How is asthma treated?
There is no cure for asthma. But the condition can usually be managed successfully so you can lead a full and active life.
Treatment is based upon trigger avoidance (i.e. allergen avoidance) and medication. Keeping a diary of times and situations when your asthma is worse will help you identify your asthma triggers, which is the first step in avoidance. A high efficient air purifier, HEPA vacuum cleaner, non-allergic bedding, and allergy friendly cleaning products will limit your exposure to allergens in your home. Transforming your bedroom into an 'allergen-free space' by effectively practising allergen avoidance will allow you to get a better nights sleep, and allows your immune system to recover. To find out more visit our Asthma Treatments information page.
There are two kinds of asthma medication - relievers and preventers.
There are also some asthma treatments taken in tablet form, usually if you have had a severe asthma attack or if your condition is not controlled well by inhalers.
Your treatment plan is intended to keep you free of asthma symptoms night and day. If you feel this is not happening, then visit your doctor or asthma nurse to review your treatment. Warning signs that your asthma is not well-controlled include:
What is an asthma attack?
Gradual worsening of your asthma symptoms over a number of days may lead to an attack, in which:
An asthma attack can be very frightening so it is important to know what to do before it actually happens. Here is what to remember: