How asthma works: what you need to know about this common lung condition

Written by: Dr Brian O´Connor
Published: | Updated: 14/06/2023
Edited by: Alex Rolandi

Around twelve per cent of people in the UK are living with asthma. It is a common condition of the lungs causing intermittent breathing difficulties. Affecting people of all ages, it usually develops during childhood but may also develop later in life as well. Although there is still no cure for asthma, there are ways to control asthma symptoms and make getting by in everyday life easier. We invited Dr Brian O'Connor, a highly esteemed consultant in general and respiratory medicine to shares his expert insight on how asthma affects the lungs.



What are the symptoms of asthma?


The severity of asthma symptoms generally vary from person to person. For some people they may be infrequent. Whilst others may experience persistent symptoms. An asthma attack occurs when asthma symptoms briefly worsen.

The most common asthma symptoms are:


These symptoms may also be signs of other conditions. They are generally considered to be asthma if they are worse at night, are frequent, or happen because of an asthma trigger such as cigarette smoke or animal fur.


In some cases it is possible for symptoms to improve over time, and some people even grow out of asthma with age.


What is an asthma attack?


Somebody has a possibly fatal asthma attack every 10 seconds in the UK. An asthma attack occurs when asthma symptoms get worse for a short period of time. During an asthma attack, sufferers often gasp for air as they struggle to breathe. They may find themselves breathless and unable to speak, sleep, or eat. Their chest often tightens, and they may wheeze or cough persistently. Increased heart rate is also possible, as well as confusion, exhaustion, or dizziness. Some people’s lips or fingers can turn blue. In severe cases, the sufferer may even faint. The onset may occur suddenly or over the period of a few days.


What to do in case of an emergency


More than 1000 people die from asthma each year. If you believe you are suffering from an asthma attack, it is important to try and remain calm and follow these steps:

  • Sit down and try to breathe slowly and steadily. Avoid panic, as this can make the situation worse
  • Take a puff on your inhaler every 30 to 60 seconds, up to 10 puffs maximum. If you have a spacer, it is a good idea to use it
  • If you find yourself without your inhaler, feel worse even after using it (after 10 puffs), or are just generally concerned about your wellbeing, call 999 and ask for an ambulance. There is no shame in calling emergency services
  • Repeat the second step if the ambulance still has not arrived after 15 minutes


What causes asthma?


Causes of asthma generally vary from one person to the next. It occurs when the breathing tubes that carry air in and out of the lungs swell up, allowing less air to pass. This can happen randomly or due to a specific asthma trigger. Well-known asthma triggers include:

  • Irritants like cigarette smoke, gases, strong smells, and cold air
  • Allergens such as pollen, animal fur, and dust mites
  • Exercise and sport
  • Infections of the chest


How is asthma treated?


The majority of asthma treatments are administered using an inhaler, which delivers a spray of medicine into the lungs as you inhale on it. Ways of living with asthma include:

  • Understanding the condition and learning what triggers it. This varies from people to people. What may be an asthma trigger for one person may not be for another
  • Preventer inhalers – used regularly on a daily basis, these reduce swelling of the breathing tubes and can help prevent asthma symptoms occurring
  • Reliever inhaler – used to alleviate asthma symptoms in the short term, particularly useful during an asthma attack


People with asthma shouldn’t smoke, as this generally will make their condition much worse. It is important they take their medication on a regular basis. Frequent exercise, eating healthily, and sleeping well can also all help improve the quality of life of an asthma sufferer.



If you are concerned about symptoms of asthma, you can schedule a consultation with Dr O'Connor by visiting his Top Doctors profile.

By Dr Brian O´Connor
Pulmonology & respiratory medicine

Dr Brian O'Connor is a leading consultant in general and respiratory medicine based in London. Having graduated in Dublin in 1980, where he completed his general medical training, he passed the entrance exam to become fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland in 1984 before taking up residence in London. There, he completed his specialist training in respiratory medicine at the reputable Royal Brompton Hospital,  where he set up a cutting edge clinical research facility researching new treatments for airwave diseases, completing an MD thesis investigating airway inflammation and asthma.

Committed to research as well as education, he was appointed Senior Lecturer at the National Heart and Lung Institute, the same year he became Consultant in Respiratory Medicine at the Royal Brompton Hospital. In 1997, he continued his clinical research at King's College School of Medicine, becoming Consultant Respiratory Physician at King's College Hospital until 2008, when he took up full time private practice. He launched the London Chest Clinic in 2009, aiming to tailor healthcare management for patients who want to take charge of their own health whether insured or not. At the forefront of his field, he has published extensively in peer-reviewed journals, edited and written chapters for books, as well as taking part in scientific meetings on the international stage. An active member of the international respiratory community, he frequently attends meetings and conferences. With expertise in all aspects of respiratory medicine, he takes a special interest in the treatment and management of airwaves diseases, asthma, smoking-related lung disease, lung cancer, lung infections, and much more. Dedicated to his patients, he always aims to provide the best possible bespoke care for each individual case.

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