Asthma - What is it?

November 5, 2021
IN
Asthma
BY
Andrew Gallagher
3 Min Read

Asthma is a chronic condition which narrows and swells your airways, they may also produce extra mucus. This can make breathing difficult and trigger coughing and shortness of breath. For some people, asthma is a minor nuisance. For others, it can be a major problem that interferes with daily activities and may lead to a life-threatening asthma attack.

"Asthma doesn't have to be a limiting condition. The best way to overcome anxiety and a feeling of helplessness is to understand your condition and take control of your treatment." - Mayo Clinic

There is no cure for Asthma, but it can be managed. Asthma changes over time, therefore it is important to work with your specialist and doctor to track your signs and symptoms and adjust your treatment as required. It is estimated that 66% of Asthma deaths are preventable with quality care and management.

Prevalence

Asthma impacts roughly 10% of the population world wide and a very wide spectrum of people. Many people are not aware that many high performing athletes suffer from Asthma, such as David Beckham, as well as popular actress Jessica Alba! In the 2008 Beijing Games, 17 percent of cyclists and 19 percent of swimmers had asthma. They captured 29 and 33 percent of the medals in those sports, respectively.

Asthma is the most prevalent chronic condition in children with more than 14% of all children having the condition.

Symptoms

Asthma symptoms vary from person to person. Some have infrequent asthma attacks, some have symptoms only when exercising and some have symptoms all the time.

Symptoms include:

  • Breathlessness
  • Chest tightness or pain
  • Wheezing when exhaling, this is actually a common sign of asthma in children
  • Trouble sleeping caused by shortness of breath, coughing or wheezing
  • Coughing or wheezing that is worsened by a respiratory virus such as a cold, or the flu

If these symptoms are happening often and keep coming back, are worse at night and early in the morning, seem to happen in response to an asthma trigger (such as exercise or allergies) then you may have asthma.

Related article: Shortness of Breath? - It May Not be Your Asthma Symptoms

Diagnosis

More than likely your GP will be able to diagnose your asthma. Diagnosis is usually done from your symptoms and some simple tests.

Common diagnostic questions include:

  • What symptoms you have
  • When they happen and how often
  • Are they triggered by something else
  • Do you have conditions such as allergies and eczema, or are your family prone to them

They then may ask you to do some tests - the most common tests are:

  • FeNO test - measuring the levels of nitric oxide in your breath, this is a sign of inflammation in your lungs.
  • Spirometry - measuring the volume of air you can hold in your lungs and how fast you can blow out.
  • Peak flow - measuring how fast you can breathe out

Treatment

Inhalers are the main form of treatment or asthma, some help relieve symptoms when they occur (reliever) and some stop symptoms developing (preventer).

If your inhaler is not helping to control your symptoms you may need to take some tablets. The most common tablets are:

  • Leukotriene receptor antagonists (LTRAs)
  • Theophylline
  • Steroid tablets

Other treatments

  1. Injections - for people with severe asthma injections given every few weeks can help control symptoms, these medications can only be prescribed by an asthma specialist.
  2. Surgery - a procedure called bronchial thermoplasty may be suitable for severe asthma.

Complementary therapies:

  • Breathing exercises - techniques such as the Papworth method and the Buteyko method
  • Traditional Chinese herbal medicine
  • Acupuncture
  • Ionisers – devices that use an electric current to charge molecules of air
  • Manual therapies – such as chiropractic
  • Homeopathy
  • Dietary supplements

Related article: Why Pulmonary Rehabilitation is Important for People with Asthma & COPD.

However, be aware that these treatments may compliment your medical treatment but they are not a replacement, especially if you have severe asthma. Talk to your doctor before taking any herbs or supplements, as some may interact with your medications.

Help yourself

Asthma can be challenging and stressful. You may become frustrated, angry or depressed because you need to stop doing some activities to avoid environmental triggers. You may also feel limited by the symptoms of the disease and the complicated management routines.

Although you may rely on medications to prevent and relieve symptoms, several things you can do will help you maintain your health and lower the risk of asthma attacks.

Asthma action plan

Create an asthma action plan with your doctor and follow it, you should also make your friends and family aware of your asthma and action plan. This also should be re-assessed with your doctor at least once a year. Asthma can change over time, regularly discuss symptoms and make treatment adjustments.

Monitor symptoms and lung function

You may learn your warning signs of an attack, such slight coughing, wheezing etc. Sometimes your lung function will decrease before you notice any changes or symptoms, therefore you should be regularly measure and record air flow tests (such as spirometry and peak flow).

Related article: What Should My Peak Flow Be?

Identify and treat attacks early

The quicker the intervention, the lower the chances of a severe attack. If your measurements decrease and alert you to an oncoming attack, take medication as instructed. Also, leave the environment/activity that may have triggered the attack. If symptoms don't improve, get medical help as outlined in your asthma action plan.

Stay healthy

Get regular exercise - use treatment to prevent asthma attacks and control symptoms during activity. Exercise can help strengthen your heart and lungs, which will relieve asthma symptoms. If you exercise in cold temperatures, wear a face mask, this warms the air you breathe in, reducing the shock to your airways, which can lead to restriction.

Maintain a healthy weight, being overweight can worsen asthma symptoms and could lead to other health problems.

Control heartburn and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Acid re-flux can damage lung airways and worsen asthma symptoms. If this is occurring regularly you should speak to your doctor about this.

Avoid triggers

Identify and avoid possible triggers, do this by making a note of where you are and what you're doing when your symptoms worsen.

Some triggers are unavoidable unfortunately but you can reduce exposure if you think it may be a trigger. Some of the most common triggers are:

  • Weather changes or extreme heat or cold
  • Food
  • Colds and flu
  • Pollution
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Mould & damp
  • Exercise
  • Pollen
  • Stress
  • COVID-19

Medication

Ensure you are using your inhaler correctly, research in Ireland shows that up to 66% of people are not using their inhaler correctly. There is a library of how to use different inhalers here.

Use your preventative inhaler everyday, even if you have no symptoms, this will keep your symptoms at bay.

If you are taking new medications, always check to see if is suitable for someone with asthma.

Stopping smoking

This is one of the key factors in reducing severity and frequency of symptoms.

Getting vaccinated

Against COVID-19, Influenza and Pneumonia.

Asthma Attack

If you're on the right asthma treatment plan, your chance of an attack is greatly reduced.

Every 10 seconds someone has a potentially life threatening asthma attack, two thirds of asthma deaths are preventable.

Ashtma Ireland have put together a 5 step plan:

Sources

Asthma - Symptoms and causes

Asthma

Asthma.ie Home

Famous Athletes with Asthma

Asthma UK calls for action to end preventable asthma deaths | Asthma UK