What is asthma?
Asthma is a long-term condition that affects your airways – the tubes that carry air in and out of your lungs. You could say that someone with asthma has ‘sensitive’ airways that are inflamed and ready to react when they come into contact with something that ‘triggers’ the airway Asthma tends to run in families, especially when there’s also a history of allergies.
When a person with asthma comes into contact with something that irritates their sensitive airways even more (asthma trigger), it causes their body to react in three ways:
1. The muscles around the walls of the airways tighten so that the airways become narrower
2. The lining of the airways becomes inflamed and starts to swell
3. Mucus sometimes builds up, which can narrow the airways even more.
These reactions cause the airways to become narrower and irritated – making it difficult to breathe and leading to asthma symptoms such as chest tightness, wheezing, or coughing.
Asthma can appear at any age. Symptoms usually start during childhood, but it’s not uncommon for adults to get it. Some adults develop it after a viral infection. If you get asthma in adulthood, it’s known as ‘adult-onset’ or ‘late-onset’ asthma. Certain things found in the workplace, such as chemicals or dust from flour or wood, can also lead to asthma symptoms. This is known as occupational asthma.
Research shows you’re more likely to develop asthma if:
- you have a family history of asthma, eczema or any allergies – for example, evidence shows that if one or both of your parents have asthma, you are more likely to have it
- you have eczema or an allergy, such as hay fever (an allergy to pollen)
- you had bronchiolitis (a common childhood lung infection) as a child
- your mother smoked while she was pregnant with you – research has shown that smoking during pregnancy significantly increases the risk of a child developing asthma
- you have been exposed to certain substances at work – this is known as occupational asthma
- you’re an adult female – hormones can affect asthma symptoms, and some women first develop asthma before and after the menopause
When your asthma flares up, the usual symptoms are wheezing, coughing (especially at night) shortness of breath, tightness in the chest etc. The symptoms of asthma can range from mild to more serious. Not everyone will get all of the symptoms. Unfortunately, about five per cent of people with the condition have what is known as severe asthma, and they require special care and support to manage symptoms. Others have asthma symptoms all the time because they’re not taking their medicines, or not taking their medicines correctly.
If you’re not taking your medicines as prescribed, your symptoms can get worse. This can affect your day-to-day quality of life. For instance, if you’re coughing at night, you may sleep badly so you end up feeling tired, grumpy with those around you and less able to concentrate at school or work. Or if you’re often breathless, you may miss out on some of the fun things in life, such as playing with your children, having trips out with your friends or enjoying romantic nights in with your partner. And most seriously of all, if your symptoms get worse, this can lead to a potentially life-threatening asthma attack.
Currently, there is no cure for asthma. The good news, though, is that there are lots of safe and effective treatment are available to manage the symptoms. Tragically, asthma attacks can lead to death and research shows that two-thirds of asthma deaths are preventable. The reassuring fact is that most people with asthma who get the right treatment – and take it correctly – can manage their symptoms and get on with what they want to do in life.