What is Asthma ?
Asthma is a commonly experienced long-term condition that causes coughing-wheezing, chest-tightness and breathlessness. It affects nearly five million people in the UK, and differs in severity.
It can be managed easily in most people, but some might have more troubling and persisting symptoms. The exact reason why asthma develops is unknown, but is closely associated with a family history of asthma and other atopic conditions such as eczema and hay fever.
Asthma can get worse gradually or suddenly, resulting in an ‘asthma attack’. There are various risk factors associated, such as house dust, smoke, exercising etc., which might irritate the lungs, constricting the airway. While there is no cure for asthma, its symptoms can be managed with the use of inhalers and avoiding its triggers.
Symptoms for asthma can range from mild to severe, most people only occasionally experience them, but others may feel discomfort on a regular basis.
Common symptoms experienced;
- Wheezing (a whistle sound when you breathe out)
- Shortness of breath
- Tightness in the chest
- Cough (especially at night)
- Signs of a cold or allergies
Symptoms are often worse and experienced more commonly at night and early morning. When they get significantly worse, it causes an attack, during which time usual treatments might not work as they normally do. Additionally it might also cause a rapid heartbeat, drowsiness, exhaustion or dizziness, and lips or fingers might turn blue due to the lack of oxygen.
If you experience any of these latter symptoms you should seek emergency help.
Symptoms usually develop or worsen in response to certain triggers, such as exercise or exposure to an allergen.
When you breathe, air is carried in down the windpipe (trachea), into smaller tubes called bronchi, which carry air in and out of your lungs. When you have asthma, these tubes become inflamed and hypersensitive, narrowing and constricting the airway, causing muscles to tighten around them, and there is an increased production of phlegm.
It is not clear as to why some people develop asthma, while others don’t, however it is probably a combination of genetic and environmental factors. You are more likely to develop the condition if you have a family history of it. Other related allergic conditions such as eczema, hay fever or food allergies also increase your risk.
Exposure to various irritants and allergens can trigger the symptoms of asthma. These triggers affect people differently. Common triggers include;
- Respiratory tract infections, such as cold and flu
- House dust mites
- Animal fur
- Cigarette smoke
- Shouting, crying or laughing
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as aspirin and ibuprofen and beta-blockers sometimes given for high blood pressure or heart disease
- Weather – changes in temperature, cold air, windy days, humid days
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GORD) – cause stomach acids to back up into the throat.
Your doctor will be able to diagnose your condition by assessing the nature and frequency of the symptoms you present with, in addition to any allergies your experience.
A number of tests can also be conducted out to confirm the diagnosis.
Spirometry A spirometry test assesses how well your lungs work. It involves taking a deep breath and exhaling as fast as you can into a mouthpiece that is attached to a spirometer. It measures the volume of air you can breathe out in the first second of exhalation and the amount of air you breath out in total. You may have to do this a few times for an accurate reading, which is compared to average measurements for your age, sex and height.
Peak expiratory flow test A peak flow meter is used to measure how fast you can blow air out of your lungs in one breath. It requires a bit of practice to get it right. You may be asked to measure your peak flow over a period of weeks at home, as lung function changes throughout the day.
Airway responsiveness To measure how your airway reacts when it comes in contact with a trigger. It involves inhaling progressively increasing amounts of an irritant, with spirometry readings taken in between.
In some cases, your mucus sample might be tested for signs of inflammation or an allergy test might be suggested.
There is no cure for asthma, but a number of treatment options are available to manage the condition, relieve symptoms and prevent future attacks.
Treatment is prescribed depending on your age, the severity of your symptoms and triggers that cause flare-ups. Long-term medication is taken to reduce the inflammation in the airways, whereas quick-relief medication is to quickly open swollen airways that constrict breathing.
Most commonly, medication is taken daily using an inhaler. It is a device that delivers medication directly into your lungs as your breathe in. You could be prescribed an inhaler that is used to relax the muscles surrounding the airways, for immediate relief, such as Ventolin. Additionally, you could be prescribed an inhaler that works to reduce the inflammation and sensitivity of the airway, to be used regularly, such as Clenil or Qvar.