Asthma is a common long-term condition which causes coughing, wheezing and breathlessness.
The condition is due to inflammation of your bronchi — small tubes within the lungs. When something like air pollution irritates the lungs, airways narrow and an excess of phlegm is produced, leading to difficulty breathing and a tightening in the chest.
A severe instance — known as an acute asthma attack — can sometimes be life threatening.
The ‘triggers’ which cause asthma symptoms vary from person to person. Common triggers can be air pollution, house dust mites, animal fur, pollen, tobacco smoke, exercise, cold air and chest infections.
How is asthma diagnosed?
A number of checks will be carried out, including a breathing test called Spirometry, to assess how well the lungs are functioning. The readings are recorded on a spirometer and compared against normal measurements within the age. A peak expiratory flow rate test will also be carried out to measure how fast air can be expelled from the lungs.
Some people take additional tests to confirm their asthma symptoms. There is a mannitol challenge test which has a requirement to breathe in increasing amounts of dry powder. The doctor may also run tests on phlegm or nitric oxide levels to check for inflamed airways.
Are you at risk of an asthma attack?
There are a number of common factors:
a family history of asthma
having an allergy
suffering a common lung infection as a child
exposure to tobacco smoke
being prematurely born / low birth weight
There is no cure, but there are a number of medications to ease the problems asthma causes.
Medication for asthma treatment is usually given via an inhaler which can deliver drugs directly into your bronchial tubes.
Reliever inhalers work by delivering drugs called beta2 agonists to relax the muscles surrounding the narrowed airways. By contrast, preventer inhalers usually contain a steroid that reduces inflammation in the airways to lessen the chance of an asthma attack. Such inhalers may also be used to deliver long-acting beta2 agonists. These take longer to work but can last up to 12 hours.
There are also spacers. These are long tube attachments to inhalers which help distribute the delivery of the drugs more directly to your lungs, reducing any side effects from the drugs such as oral thrush.
If inhalers cannot help control the coughing and wheezing that asthma causes, then oral steroids may be prescribed for one or two weeks.
Frequent and severe asthma attacks may require injected steroids such as Omalizumab (Xolair) for a few months.
There’s also bronchial thermoplasty is a relatively new asthma treatment which uses heat to expand your narrowed airways.
However, the best advice is to try to live with asthma and draw up an action plan which enables the symptoms to be recognised and dealt with before they get worse and what treatments to take.