Let’s Talk About Asthma

Asthma is a common condition that affects the airways.  The typical symptoms are wheeze, cough, chest tightness and shortness of breath.  Symptoms can range from mild to severe.  Treatment is usually through inhalers which work well to ease and prevent symptoms.  A typical person with asthma may take a preventer inhaler every day to prevent developing of symptoms or use a reliever inhaler as and when required, if symptoms flare up.

What is asthma and who does it affect?

Asthma is a condition that affects the smaller airways (bronchioles) of the lungs.  From time to time, the airways narrow (constrict) in people who have asthma.  This causes the typical symptoms.  The extent of the narrowing, and how long each episode lasts, can vary greatly.  Asthma can start at any age but it most commonly starts in childhood.  At least 1 in 10 children and 1 in 20 adults have asthma.  Asthma runs in some families but many people with asthma have no other family members affected.

What causes asthma?

The symptoms of asthma are caused by inflammation in the airways, which may be triggered by different things in different people.  The inflammation causes the muscles around the airways to squeeze (contract), causing narrowing of the airways.  It is then more difficult to get air in and out of the lungs leading to wheezing and breathlessness.  The inflammation also causes the lining of the airways to make extra mucus which causes cough and further obstruction to follow.

Asthma symptoms may flare up from time to time.  There is often no obvious reason why symptoms flare up.  However, some people find that symptoms are triggered, or made worse, in certain situations.  It may be possible to avoid certain triggers, which may help to reduce symptoms.  Triggers include the following:

  • Infections (particularly colds, coughs and chest infections)
  • Pollens and moulds (asthma is often worse in the hay fever season)
  • Exercise (however, sport and exercise are good for you if you have asthma.  An inhaler can be used before exercise to prevent symptoms from developing)
  • Certain medicines (about 1 in 50 people with asthma are allergic to aspirin which can trigger symptoms)
  • Smoking and cigarette fumes (if you smoke and have asthma, you should make every effort to stop.  Passive smoking can make asthma worse too.  Even where adults smoke away from the presence of children, smoke on clothes, hair etc may make asthma worse.  All children deserve to live in a smoke-free home – in particular children with asthma).
  • Other fumes and chemicals (fumes from paints, solvents and pollution)
  • Certain pillows and mattresses (feathers in pillows may trigger symptoms)
  • Emotion (asthma is not due to ‘nerves’, however, such things as stress, emotional upset or laughing may trigger symptoms)
  • Allergies to animals (pet cats and dogs etc)
  • House dust mite (a tiny creature which lives in mattresses and other fabrics around the home.  If you are allergic to it, it may make symptoms worse)

Asthma typical treatment plan

A common treatment plan for a typical person with moderate asthma is:

  • preventer inhaler (usually a steroid inhaler), taken each morning and at bedtime.  This usually prevents symptoms throughout the day and night
  • reliever inhaler may be needed now and then if breakthrough symptoms occur.  For example, if symptoms flare up when you have a cough or cold
  • if exercise or sport causes symptoms then a dose of a reliever inhaler just before the exercise usually prevents symptoms
  • dose of the preventer inhaler may need to be increased for a while if you have a cough or cold, or during the hay fever season
  • some people may need to add in a long-acting bronchodilator or tablets if symptoms are not controlled with the above.

Adjusting doses of inhalers is done on the advice of a doctor or nurse.  See a doctor urgently if you develop severe symptoms that are not eased by a reliever inhaler particularly if you have difficulty talking due to shortness of breath.  You may need emergency treatment with high-dose reliever medicine and other treatments, sometimes in hospital.  A severe asthma attack can be life-threatening.

Does asthma go away?

There is no once-and-for-all cure.  However, about half of the children who develop asthma grow out of it by the time they are adults.  For many adults, asthma is variable with some good spells and some spells that are not so good.  Some people are worse in the winter months and some are worse in the hay fever season.  Although not curable, asthma is treatable.  Stepping up the treatment for a while during bad spells will control symptoms.

We at Premier Service Medical Aid Society value your health.  Stay healthy!