Asthma: signs, symptoms, diagnosis and more

Written by: Dr Anne Mier
Published: | Updated: 28/02/2020
Edited by: Top Doctors®

Asthma is a common condition that affects millions of people in the UK alone. There is no cure for asthma at present, but with the right treatment and management, those who suffer can minimise the impact on their lives. Dr Anne Mier is a leading expert in respiratory and general medicine, specialising in a range of conditions including asthma.

What is asthma?

Asthma is a long-term condition that affects the lungs. The airways become inflamed and the muscles around them tighten, making the airways narrower and breathing difficult. A build-up of mucus may also occur, constricting the airways further.

Asthma is a fairly common condition and although estimates vary, as many as one in eleven people in the UK may have the condition*. It is usually diagnosed in childhood, however, the condition may also appear in adults. 

Asthma symptoms have numerous triggers which will vary from patient to patient.  Common asthma triggers include, but are not limited to; common allergens (such as dust mites and pollen), air pollution, anxiety, exercise and exposure to cold or dry air.

What are the symptoms of asthma?

Asthma symptoms include wheezing, a tight chest, coughing and breathlessness, and are often worse at night. The severity of the symptoms varies enormously from person to person, ranging from little or no impact on a person’s daily routine to life threatening. The onset of symptoms is known as an asthma attack.

An asthma attack may be mild and resolve by itself or with home treatment. For sufferers with severe asthma the symptoms may not resolve and emergency care may be required.

How is asthma diagnosed?

There is no single test for asthma. If asthma is suspected, however, some form of breathing or respiratory test will usually be administered. Spirometry is a lung function test that measures how fast a person can breathe out and the amount of air they are able to hold in their lungs. Alternatively, a peak flow test can be used to measure the speed at which air can be expelled from the lungs.

Other tests exist, such as the airway responsiveness test, in which symptoms are induced to see how the airways respond to an asthma trigger. Airway inflammation can also be tested using mucus samples or testing the concentration of nitric oxide in the patient’s breath.

Allergy tests may also be administered in cases where the doctor believes asthma symptoms are triggered by an allergen.

How is asthma treated?

Although some patients who develop the disease in childhood may grow out of it, there is currently no cure for asthma. Consequently, treatment is focused on managing the symptoms to minimise the impact on a patient’s life.

It is important for an individual to work out their particular asthma triggers so they can avoid or minimise exposure to them.

Medication is available and usually comes in the form of inhalers. These are pocket-sized devices that administer doses of medicine directly to the airways by means of inhalation. Sufferers will often be prescribed a fast-acting (usually blue) inhaler to deal with the immediate symptoms of an asthma attack. Long-term control is provided by corticosteroids, administered by a (usually brown or red) inhaler which is taken on a daily basis.

In recent years, medicines known as monoclonal antibodies have been used to treat severe cases of asthma triggered by allergens (severe allergic asthma). Monoclonal antibodies work by blocking the chemicals produced by the immune system.

* According to Asthma UK, 5.4 million people in the UK are being treated for asthma

By Dr Anne Mier
Pulmonology & respiratory medicine

Dr Anne Mier is a leading expert in respiratory and general medicine in London. Having graduated in medicine at the Middlesex Hospital, she took up training posts in cardiology and rheumatology there, then general medicine and neurology at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, and later general medicine and endocrinology at the Royal Free Hospital.

With experience working in a wide variety of fields in medicine, she became registrar at the Royal Brompton Hospital and carried out research in respiratory muscle physiology, completing her MD thesis before becoming lecturer and senior medical registrar at Charing Cross Hospital.

Specialising in all kinds of respiratory problems such as chest infections, cough, and breathlessness, other interests include sleep disorders and fatigue. Now a leading expert in respiratory and general medicine, she has published extensively in peer-reviewed papers and always strives to provide her patients with the best, most appropriate and kindest possible care tailored to each medical case.

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