What is asthma?

Asthma is a common condition in which the bronchi (airways to the lungs), become irritated and inflamed, making it difficult for air to move in and out of the lungs. The inflammation makes the airways produce extra mucus which causes a cough and further obstruction to airflow.

Around 5.4 million people in the UK suffer from asthma, which equates to one in every 11 people and one in five households. (Source: Asthma UK, accessed Jan 2019).

Allergic asthma occurs when the airways become hypersensitive to certain allergens such as pet hair or pollen, causing the immune system to overreact and the airways to tighten.

Some patients may even suffer with severe asthma which requires very specialist treatment to reduce the amount of muscle around the airways.

Symptoms of asthma

Symptoms of asthma include:

  • wheezing
  • shortness of breath
  • tightness in the chest
  • a cough (particularly first thing in the morning or last thing at night)

The severity of symptoms varies from person to person, but with the right treatment they can be effectively controlled.

What are the causes of asthma ?

The exact cause of asthma remains unknown, although there are a number of risk factors that can increase the risk of developing the condition. These include:

  • having a family history of asthma
  • suffering from allergic conditions such as food allergy or hay fever
  • having bronchiolitis as a child
  • being born underweight or prematurely

Common triggers that can bring on symptoms of asthma include:

  • pollen
  • dust mites
  • tobacco smoke
  • cat or dog hair
  • cold air
  • chest infections

Diagnosing asthma

Sometimes people think of asthma as something you get when you’re a child, but it can develop at any age.

It’s important to get a confirmed diagnosis. If you have asthma and it’s not diagnosed or looked after properly, it can make it even harder for your lungs to work well. And over time symptoms like breathlessness, coughing and tightness in the chest will be worse. Under-treated asthma may be life threatening.

If you suspect you have asthma, your doctor will typically carry out a lung function test to measure how quickly you can blow air from your lungs.

You may also be required to undergo a ‘trial of treatment’ where you are administered with asthma medication and diagnosed with the condition if you respond to treatment.

At Guy’s and St Thomas’ Specialist Care, we offer a range of diagnostic tests for lung conditions such as asthma, including:

  • spirometry
  • FeNO testing

Asthma treatment

Although there is no cure for asthma, the condition can usually be controlled via a range of medications and the avoidance of certain triggers.

A typical treatment programme involves taking a preventer inhaler on a daily basis to prevent symptoms from developing, and using a reliever inhaler if symptoms flare up.

Patients with severe asthma may require treatment such as bronchial thermoplasty

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