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

Written by: Top Doctors®
Edited by: Alex Rolandi

Around 12% 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. 

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:


  • Breathlessness
  • Tight chest
  • Wheezing
  • Coughing

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 suspect you or your child is suffering from asthma, get in touch with a specialist.



By Topdoctors
Allergy & immunology

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