Asthma: The basics
According to the NHS, some 5.4 million people in the UK are currently being treated for asthma. This long-term condition can cause symptoms such as coughing, wheezing and breathlessness and, according to research by the charity Asthma UK, claims the lives of three people a day.
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Though there is no cure, the majority of asthma sufferers are able to control the condition successfully thanks to a variety of treatments. If you or your child suffers from asthma, here's what you need to know.
Caused by inflammation of the bronchi, the airways that carry air to and from the lungs, asthma occurs when the bronchi are irritated. This causes the walls of the airways to tighten and narrow while the lining becomes inflamed and swollen, usually leading to breathing difficulties. In some instances, a build up of phlegm can further exacerbate the problem.
Where the symptoms are severe, the resulting asthma attack, or acute asthma exacerbation as it is also known, can sometimes require hospital treatment and, in very severe cases, become life-threatening. Those who suffer chronic, or long-term, asthma, may experience a more permanent narrowing of the airways.
Research has found that one in 12 adults are sufferers, while one in 11 children is diagnosed with the condition. Though the exact cause is unknown, experts believe asthma may often run in the family.
However, the symptoms may come and go. Those diagnosed as a child often find their symptoms ease or disappear during their teenage years but it should be noted that the condition can develop at any age.
The irritation of the airways that causes the symptoms of asthma varies greatly from person to person. Dust mites, animal fur, pollen and smoke are all known to trigger or exacerbate the symptoms, while for some, a chest infection, exercise or even exposure to certain weather conditions such cold air or a humid day can bring on an attack.
Some sufferers may find that the kinds of chemicals used in cleaning products can trigger their symptoms, while others can react badly to anti-inflammatories such as aspirin and ibuprofen.
Diagnosis and treatment
If you suspect you or your child may have developed asthma, your first port of call should be your GP. The doctor will likely ask about your symptoms, both what they are and how often you experience them, and will want to know about any medication you are taking as well details of your work or home life. This is simply to help them identify any possible triggers.
If your GP believes that asthma may be the cause of your problem, they may ask you to perform a very simple test, commonly the peak expiratory flow rate test. This involves a hand-held peak flow meter than measures how fast you can blow air out of your lungs. Some potential sufferers may need further tests but in most cases the peak flow test is enough to determine whether the airways are affected by asthma.
Once diagnosed, many asthma sufferers find their everyday lives are largely unaffected given some simple medication. A preventer inhaler (usually brown, red or orange) is often recommended daily to help reduce inflammation over time. A reliever inhaler (commonly blue) is usually prescribed also. These work by relaxing the muscles around the airways making breathing easier. They should be used only when necessary, however, and if you find yourself needing to use the reliever inhaler three or more times a week, your treatment should be reviewed.
Where symptoms fail to respond to the above treatments, a long-acting reliever may be prescribed, to be used in combination with the preventer inhaler. In some cases, tablets may be necessary to reduce the inflammation of the airways or relax the muscles around them. On occasion, for example when a chest infection has taken hold, oral steroids may be necessary but a course will usually last only one or two weeks. Asthma sufferers should always take advantage of the annual flu jab, which should be offered by your GP.
An asthma attack can be a frightening experience that causes the suffer to panic due to the inability to catch a breath. Should you feel an attack coming on, the charity Asthma UK advises taking one or two puffs of your reliever inhaler and attempting to take slow, steady breaths while seated. Should the symptoms continue, continue to take one puff on the reliever inhaler every two minutes, up to 10 puffs. If the symptoms are still not alleviated, dial 999 or, if a friend or family member is nearby to help, go straight to A&E. A visit to your GP within 48 hours of the attack is advisable. A free 'What to do in an asthma attack' card is available from www.asthma.org.uk and contain basic information on what steps to take. It is ideal for child sufferers as it will enable teachers or nursery carers to recognise and deal with an attack.
Lastly, never ignore any worsening of your symptoms. If in doubt, see your doctor for a review of your treatment.