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Asthma: Causes, symptoms, and treatments

Phil Day: Superintendent Pharmacist | minute read

Asthma is a common medical condition which affects approximately 5.4 million people in the UK. In this article we’re going to explore what asthma is, what symptoms it has, and what you can do to treat and manage asthma.

So, what’s asthma?

Asthma is a common condition which affects the lungs. It can cause breathing difficulties and it can affect people of all ages. Asthma often starts in childhood, but it can develop at any time.

What are the causes (triggers) of asthma?

Asthma symptoms are commonly triggered by allergies brought on by pollen, dust mites, feathers and animal fur. Smoke fumes and general air pollution can also act as a trigger, and having a cold or the flu can also set it off.  

Certain medications are also known to trigger asthma. This is particularly true of anti-inflammatory painkillers such as aspirin and ibuprofen.

Asthma can even be triggered by exercise and heightened emotional states such as excessive laughter or stress. 

What are the symptoms of asthma?

Patients with asthma will often experience a wheezing sound when breathing, a feeling of breathlessness, coughing fits and a tightness around the chest area. This is due to inflammation in the airways and therefore a narrowing of the air passages in the lungs.

That doesn’t sound too serious, does it?

On the contrary, asthma is very serious and can be life-threatening. Asthma attacks are serious and currently lead to the deaths of 3 people a day on average in the UK. The rate of people dying from the condition in the UK has risen by nearly 20% in the last five years, giving us one of the worst asthma death rates in Europe.

Tragically, many asthma related deaths could be avoided. You can assess the risk of you having an attack with Asthma UK’s asthma attack risk checker.

When should I see a doctor?

Asthma is diagnosed by your GP. You should make an appointment if you suspect that either you or your child have asthma. They will carry out some simple breathing tests and will advise on treatments if they make a diagnosis.

Can asthma be cured?

Unfortunately there is currently no known cure for asthma. However, with the right treatment, it’s possible to manage the symptoms so that there is a minimal impact on your day to day life. 

How do you treat asthma?

The typical treatment for asthma involves using an inhaler which helps to ease the symptoms. They fall into two main categories – inhalers that help relieve the symptoms of asthma, when you are already breathless, and those which are used to prevent the symptoms from coming back. Preventative inhalers are used regularly, on a daily basis, even when you feel fine. In some cases a GP may recommend tablets instead of, or as well as, inhalers.

It’s very important that you understand how to use your inhaler properly. There are several different types of inhaler device, and while it might seem obvious about how to use it, many people need help to understand how to get the best out of them. It’s recommended that you take a few minutes to review your inhaler technique, even if you feel fine. Your local pharmacist, asthma nurse or GP can show you. You can also check out this selection of online videos for each type of device:


What do I do if I’m experiencing an asthma attack?

Here’s a quick guide for those who think they’re experiencing an asthma attack.

Firstly, sit up rather than laying down. Then try to take some steady deep breaths and try to remain calm. Panicking can make your symptoms worse. 

You should then take a puff of your reliever inhaler, which is usually blue in colour, at 30 to 60 second intervals. Only take up to 10 puffs. Call 999 If you don’t have an inhaler, or if you’re feeling worse despite using it. If an ambulance doesn’t arrive within 15 minutes, use the blue inhaler again every 30 to 60 seconds as before. 

After the attack has passed, you should see your GP or an asthma nurse as 1 in 6 people who have had an attack will need hospital care again within 2 weeks. 

Where can I find more information about asthma?

Your local health professional can help, and there are many high quality online resources – we would recommend the following links where you can learn more about adult asthma, adults in children, and advice on how to live with asthma.

NHS website: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/asthma/

Asthma UK: https://www.asthma.org.uk/