Asthma is estimated to affect 4.3 million adults in the UK - the highest prevalence in Europe. The condition causes breathing difficulties, wheezing, tightness of the chest and coughing when triggered.
There are a range of asthma triggers which can cause acute symptoms. Common triggers include physical excursion, allergies (such as hay fever), and sleeping - though it's not understood why some people experience asthma symptoms at night.
If you suspect you have asthma, it's important to arrange an appointment with your GP.
What does asthma feel like?
Asthma is a respiratory condition which causes inflammation of the bronchi in the lungs. This inflammation can cause a number of symptoms.
Coughing is the bodies' mechanism of expelling particles which enter the airways. You may have a cough if you develop an infection, such as a cold or flu. In these cases, the cough is productive - meaning that it produces phlegm and mucus. In asthma, however, the cough is usually non-productive and dry. You may also wheeze when you cough.
Wheezing is common during asthma and often accompanies an asthma cough. This is a high-pitched whistling or hissing sound which happens when you breathe. Wheezing occurs due to the constriction of the airways, which restricts airflow through your respiratory system, making it harder to breathe.
Tightness of the chest is the feeling of pressure in your chest. Some people describe it as "an elephant is standing on their chest". This tight, banding tension is caused by the inflammation in the lungs. It can be painful and scary during an asthma attack.
Shortness of breath is another characteristic of asthma. While it's common to experience shortness of breath after exercising, those with asthma may experience shortness of breath without doing much at all. You may feel like you can't breathe.
These symptoms may only present themselves under certain situations, though in people with severe asthma these symptoms are present most of the time. Some people with asthma report their symptoms worsen at night, affecting their quality of sleep.
During an asthma attack, these symptoms become acute, which can be very scary. If you do have an asthma attack, it's important to remain calm and use your rescue inhaler to relieve your symptoms. We have information for people on how to assist someone while they are having an asthma attack.
How is asthma diagnosed?
While asthma can be diagnosed at any age, it is common for it to be diagnosed in children.
Your GP may be able to diagnose asthma. If not, you may be referred to a specialist.
During your appointment, your doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms and any other conditions you might have, such as any allergies or any conditions which run in your family.
Asthma may not be diagnosed based entirely on your symptoms. Further tests, which usually involve breathing or blowing into a device, may be required to aid in the diagnosis.
Spirometry and peak flow tests involve blowing into a device to see how fast you can breathe out. This gives an indication into how efficient your lungs are. In the case of a peak flow test, you may be required to take readings regularly to see if the efficiency changes over time.
Another test which can be performed is an FeNO (nitric oxide) test. This tests looks for the presence of nitric oxide when you exhale. Nitric oxide is an indicator of inflammation within the lungs, which may confirm allergy induced asthma.
Your doctor may require allergy tests to determine any possible allergic asthma triggers. Knowing your triggers is an important part of managing your asthma.
Once diagnosed, your GP can advise the most suitable course of treatment for you, including preventer and reliever inhalers to manage your symptoms, and lifestyle changes to avoid your asthma symptoms from flaring up.
Can asthma be cured?
While asthma cannot be cured permanently, it can be managed with various treatments.
For most cases, your doctor may prescribe the use of inhalers. These are devices which deliver a dose of medicine by breathing them in.
There are two main categories of inhalers; preventer and reliever.
Preventer inhalers are usually long-lasting. They are normally taken daily to prevent asthma symptoms from developing in the first place. Sometimes, preventer inhalers are referred to as "brown inhalers" as many of them are brown, beige or orange. Examples of preventer inhalers include Clenil Modulite and Qvar.
Conversely, reliever inhalers - colloquially referred to as "blue inhalers" - are used when symptoms develop to reduce them. These include Ventolin and Salamol.
Some inhalers combine the ingredients of preventer inhalers and reliever inhalers, such as Seretide. These types of inhaler contain a long-acting medicine with a short-acting medicine to not only prevent asthma symptoms from developing over time, but to reduce the symptoms upon administering it.
Your GP will prescribe the most suitable treatments for you based on the severity of your condition, medical history and any other medicine you may be taking. Once you have your prescription, you can take it to your local pharmacy and have your asthma treatment dispensed.
If you cannot get to your local pharmacy, you can order inhalers via an online pharmacy, such as prescriptiondoctor.com. All you need to do is answer some questions about your condition and your overall health for our doctor to look at. If our doctor approves your order before 3pm, Monday to Friday, our UK based pharmacy will dispense and dispatch your medicine the same day via a next-day, discreet delivery service to ensure your privacy.
It is important to use your inhaler as prescribed by your GP. Proper technique is paramount to the efficacy of the inhaler - your technique may need to be reviewed regularly to ensure you are taking your inhaler correctly. If you are not sure how to take your inhaler, or are having particular difficulty in administering your asthma medicine, speak to your doctor or a pharmacist.