Asthma in a nutshell – 10 questions and answers about asthmaFacts | 20/04/2021
Tightness in the chest, wheezing and a persistent cough are symptoms of asthma. It’s a relatively common condition that affects your airways. But what causes it, how does asthma affect your lungs, and how is it treated? Here are answers to some common questions.
What is asthma?
If you have shortness of breath or tightness in your chest, or you experience wheezing or suffer from prolonged coughing, you might have asthma.
With asthma, the airways in your lungs are sensitive, inflamed and become irritated in certain situations. Irritated airways can produce more mucus and become narrow, which makes it difficult to breathe.
Asthma symptoms can get worse when something irritates the airways. This is called an asthma attack, and things that make symptoms worse are commonly called ‘asthma triggers’.
What are the symptoms of asthma?
Not everyone with asthma develops the same combination of symptoms, but there are some common ones to watch out for.
One common symptom of asthma is wheezing, which means making a whistling sound especially when you breathe out. An asthma patient may also have a dry cough, tightness in the chest, or find it difficult to breathe in certain circumstances, for example, during exercise.
People with asthma may exhibit any combination of these symptoms. Some may only be affected occasionally, while others may experience symptoms often. This may be classed as ‘severe asthma’.
What is an asthma attack?
An asthma attack is when asthma symptoms get worse, making it difficult to breathe. Individual asthma triggers, such as sport, respiratory infections or allergies, may prompt asthma attacks. However, they don’t always happen suddenly, but can develop over a few hours, or even a few days.
During an asthma attack the muscles around the airways will tighten, the airway lining will swell and the body may produce more mucus.
You can spot an asthma attack by looking out for signs such as bad wheezing when breathing in and out, coughing that won’t stop, and tight chest and neck muscles. What is known as their ‘peak flow’ score is lower than usual.
In a severe attack, the person experiencing the attack may also find it hard to speak, feel panicky, or might be sweating. It might be that a reliever inhaler doesn’t help.
Asthma attacks can be quite serious if not treated, so it’s important to keep asthma under control with regular medication.
What causes asthma?
There are several risk factors for asthma that increase the chances of developing it. These include allergies, air pollution, and a family history of the condition. People, can, of course, also develop asthma without exposure to any of these risk factors, though that is less likely.
If you, or someone close to you, have asthma, it’s very important to become familiar with asthma triggers. This way you can try to manage them. Common asthma triggers include a cold and other respiratory infections, dust mites, pet allergies, cigarette smoke, exercise, stress, excitement or anger, and poor air quality or pollen.
Who develops asthma?
An estimated nearly 10 million people live with asthma in Europe, of all ages and backgrounds – it can affect anyone.
People often think of asthma as just a childhood condition. Although it often first appears when you are young, it can actually develop at any age. It’s certainly not unusual for adults to develop asthma. Asthma that starts in childhood may get better as the child gets older, thanks to good asthma management. Yet, some children will continue to experience asthma symptoms also as adults.
If you have a family history of asthma or live with allergies then you’re more at risk of developing it.
How is asthma diagnosed?
Unlike many other conditions, diagnosing asthma can take some time.
Your first port of call is likely to be your doctor, who may examine your lungs and ask about your family medical history and lifestyle. Your doctor may have you perform some lung function tests, too, to check your breathing. The patient might be asked to use a peak flow meter, a handheld device you blow into to see how hard and fast you can breathe out.
After the appointment, the patient will be asked to log symptoms at home for a while, and maybe try out some medication. The clinician can use all of this information to reach a diagnosis.
What is the treatment for asthma?
There is currently no cure for asthma, but there are medicines available to help control the disease and its symptoms. When asthma is under control, it doesn’t interfere with normal daily life.
Taking asthma medication as advised by the treating doctor is one of the most important components in asthma treatment. Another is to avoid the asthma triggers that make symptoms worse.
It’s important to always discuss treatment with a doctor, nurse or pharmacist, and make sure you understand the instructions. If the patient experiences asthma symptoms often, it is important to talk to the doctor or nurse to review the symptoms and adjust the medication as needed.
Asthma inhalers – what is a preventer or a reliever?
Asthma is primarily treated with inhaled medicines: preventers and relievers.
A preventer controls the swelling and inflammation in airways which helps to control the symptoms and reduces the risk of an asthma attack. The preventer must be taken regularly, whether or not you are feeling wheezy or short of breath.
A reliever, on the other hand, provides a short- or long-acting ‘bronchodilator’ a type of drug which relaxes the muscles around the lungs and opens up the airways.
Relievers do not treat the underlying cause (inflammation) of asthma, so they are used when needed. Preventers are the base medicine to be taken regularly.
It is important that you know how to use your inhaler properly. A lot of people don't! When you are prescribed the inhaled medicine, you should be offered training or guidance to use the inhaler properly. If you have any doubts or questions, be sure to ask for help from healthcare professionals at your local clinic or pharmacy.
Is it possible to live a normal life with asthma?
It is perfectly possible to live a normal life with asthma. Although there isn’t a cure for asthma just yet, it can be managed well with the right medication and self-care.
Even though asthma is a lifelong condition (known as a ‘chronic’ condition), effective management can sometimes relieve symptoms to the point where they don’t interfere all that much with daily life.
Most people with asthma can be as active as anyone else, although people with severe asthma may find their condition does cause them problems.
What should I do if I suspect I am asthmatic?
As with any suspected medical condition, it’s a good idea to see your doctor as soon as you can. The quicker you can find the cause of your breathing problems, the quicker you and your doctor can find a solution.
Although it is relatively common, and for most people it is very mild, asthma can still be quite serious if not treated properly. If you do have asthma, seeing your doctor as soon as you suspect a problem can help prevent the condition from getting worse.
Photo by iStock
Date of preparation: March 2023 / EASYH-1425(1)
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