Asthma is a condition that affects the lungs and can cause occasional breathing difficulties. It is a common condition that affects people of all ages and often begins in childhood, but it can also develop in adults for the first time.

While there is no cure for asthma, there are treatments available to manage symptoms and keep them under control, helping to minimise the impact on people's lives.

What are The Symptoms of Asthma?

Asthma is a chronic respiratory condition that affects the airways in the lungs, leading to various symptoms that can vary in severity. Understanding these symptoms and the levels of asthma can help in managing and treating the condition effectively.

Common Symptoms of Asthma 

  • Shortness of Breath: Difficulty breathing, especially during physical activity or at night. 
  • Wheezing: A high-pitched whistling sound made while breathing, particularly when exhaling. 
  • Coughing: Persistent cough often worsens at night or early in the morning. 
  • Chest Tightness: A feeling of constriction or pressure in the chest. 
  • Rapid Breathing: Increasing breathing rate, often accompanied by anxiety. 

Levels of Asthma 

Asthma symptoms can range from mild to severe, and the condition is typically categorised into different levels based on the frequency and intensity of symptoms. 

1. Mild Intermittent Asthma 

  • Symptoms Frequency: Less than twice a week. 
  • Nighttime Symptoms: Less than twice a month. 
  • Impact on Activities: Minimal, with symptoms easily managed and infrequent use of rescue inhalers. 

2. Mild Persistent Asthma 

  • Symptoms Frequency: More than twice a week but not daily. 
  • Nighttime Symptoms: Three to four times a month. 
  • Impact on Activities: Minor limitations, and occasional flare-ups that may affect daily activities. 

3. Moderate Persistent Asthma 

  • Symptoms Frequency: Daily symptoms. 
  • Nighttime Symptoms: More than once a week. 
  • Impact on Activities: Some limitations, frequent use of rescue inhalers, and more intense flare-ups. 

4. Severe Persistent Asthma 

  • Symptoms Frequency: Continual symptoms throughout the day. 
  • Nighttime Symptoms: Frequent, often nightly. 
  • Impact on Activities: Severe limitations, with symptoms significantly affecting daily activities and overall quality of life. 

Asthma Attacks 

Symptoms can sometimes worsen which is referred to as an asthma attack. 

Asthma attacks can be life-threatening, causing an estimated 1 in 3 deaths in the UK. However, if you or someone you know with asthma is on the right treatment plan, the chances of having an asthma attack are greatly reduced. 

Asthma Attack Symptoms  

The key signs to look out for if you are having an asthma attack are: 

  • A worsening cough, breathlessness, wheezing or tighter chest 
  • Blue reliever inhaler is ineffective 
  • You are too breathless to speak or eat 
  • Unable to catch your breath 
  • Lower than normal peak flow score (this is a test where you blow as hard as possible into a handheld device, known as a peak flow meter) 
  • Tummy ache or chest ache may be symptoms for children  

It’s important to note that symptoms of an asthma attack can develop slowly over a few hours or days.  

Causes of Asthma

The exact cause of asthma is not known. However, people with the condition have inflamed and sensitive airways that can become narrow or clogged with sticky mucus in response to certain triggers.  

Research suggests that these triggers can be associated with genetics, pollution, and even modern hygiene standards, but whether they are the main cause of asthma remains unproven. 

Common triggers that could lead to asthma symptoms include:  

  • An infection such as cold or flu 
  • Pollen, dust or animal allergies 
  • Pollution, smoke and fumes 
  • Certain medications – in particular anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen and aspirin 
  • Exercise  
  • Mould, mildew and damp 
  • Stress or laughter  
  • Sudden changes in temperature and weather, e.g cold air, wind, thunderstorms, heat and humidity  

Who Is at Risk of Asthma?

Several factors could increase a person’s chance of having asthma. Asthma can affect anyone, regardless of age or background, but certain factors can increase the likelihood of developing this chronic respiratory condition. Understanding these risk factors can help in early detection and management. 

A list of risk factors that can affect developing asthma are:  

  • Family History- Having a parent or sibling with asthma increases the risk 
  • People with allergic conditions like eczema, hay fever, or food allergies are more prone to asthma 
  • Being overweight or obese can increase the likelihood of asthma due to the additional strain on the respiratory system. 
  • Inflammation associated with obesity may also contribute to asthma development 
  • Being exposed to tobacco smoke as a child 
  • Your mother smoking during pregnancy  
  • Babies born prematurely or with low birth weight are at a higher risk of developing asthma due to underdeveloped lungs 

There are also people at risk of asthma due to their job – this is known as occupational asthma. Types of workers who are at a higher risk can include: 

  • Paint sprayers  
  • Timber workers 
  • Welders 
  • Animal handlers  
  • Chemical workers  
  • Nurses  
  • Bakers  
  • Food processing workers 

Diagnosing Asthma

Diagnosing asthma involves a combination of medical history, physical examinations, and specific tests to assess lung function and identify potential triggers. If you suspect you have asthma, your GP or a respiratory specialist may recommend several tests to confirm the diagnosis and determine the severity of the condition. 

Upon your visit to the doctor, you will likely be asked the following to help determine if you have asthma: 

  • What symptoms do you have? 
  • When do they happen, how often are they? 
  • Do you have any allergies or a family history of them? 
  • Does anything trigger your symptoms? 

Common Tests for Asthma Diagnosis

1. Spirometry 

  • What It Is: A common and essential test that measures how much air you can inhale and exhale, and how quickly you can blow air out of your lungs. 
  • How It Works: You will be asked to take a deep breath and then exhale forcefully into a mouthpiece connected to a spirometer. This test helps to assess the narrowing of your bronchial tubes. 
  • What It Shows: Reduced airflow can indicate asthma or other lung conditions. 

2. Peak Flow Measurement 

  • What It Is: A simple test using a peak flow meter to measure the highest speed at which you can blow air out of your lungs. 
  • How It Works: You blow into the device as hard and fast as you can, and the meter provides a reading. 
  • What It Shows: Lower than normal peak flow readings can suggest asthma. 

3. FeNO Test (Fractional Exhaled Nitric Oxide) 

  • What It Is: A test that measures the level of nitric oxide in your breath, which can indicate inflammation in the lungs. 
  • How It Works: You breathe into a machine that analyses the amount of nitric oxide in your exhalation. 
  • What It Shows: Higher levels of nitric oxide are associated with asthma-related inflammation. 

4. Bronchodilator Reversibility Test 

  • What It Is: A spirometry test conducted before and after using a bronchodilator (a medication that helps open the airways). 
  • How It Works: You perform a spirometry test, take the bronchodilator, and then repeat the test after about 15 minutes. 
  • What It Shows: Significant improvement in lung function after using the bronchodilator suggests asthma. 

Living With Asthma

Being on the right treatment plan, for many people with asthma can live a normal life. Here are a few ways to help manage your symptoms: 

  • Properly using your inhaler – if you are unsure, ask your nurse or GP for advice 
  • Use your preventer inhaler daily – this will help prevent asthma attacks and keep symptoms under control 
  • Checking medication before taking it, if you are unsure if it is suitable for someone with asthma, check with the pharmacists, nurse or doctor 
  • Regular exercise – your asthma shouldn’t be triggered due to exercise if you are on the right course of treatment 
  • Having a normal diet and eating healthy  
  • Getting vaccinated  
  • Not smoking – stopping smoking can have a significant impact in reducing the severity and frequency of asthma symptoms  

Asthma FAQ’s

Is Asthma More Common in Children or Adults? 

Asthma can develop at any age, but it is more frequently diagnosed in children. Many children with asthma experience improvements or even outgrow the condition as they age. However, asthma can also develop in adults, sometimes due to occupational exposures or other factors. It's important to effectively manage asthma in both children and adults by seeking regular medical care and adhering to treatment plans. 

How Can I Support a Loved One with Asthma?

Supporting someone with asthma involves understanding their condition and being prepared to help. Here are some tips: 

  • Learn About Asthma: Educate yourself about asthma, its symptoms, and triggers. 
  • Encourage Adherence to Treatment: Remind them to take their medication and follow their asthma action plan. 
  • Be Prepared: Know what to do in case of an asthma attack and ensure they have their inhaler with them. 
  • Offer Emotional Support: Living with a chronic condition can be stressful. Offer your support and understanding. 

Does Asthma Get Worse with Age? 

Asthma can change over time, and while some people may see their symptoms improve with age, others might experience worsening symptoms. Factors such as overall health, environmental exposures, and adherence to treatment can influence how asthma progresses. Regular check-ups with a healthcare provider are essential for managing asthma effectively at any age. 

Further advice and support