It affects people of all ages and often starts in childhood, although it can also develop for the first time in adults.
There’s currently no cure, but there are simple treatments that can help keep the symptoms under control so it does not have a big impact on your life.
The main symptoms of asthma are:
The symptoms can sometimes get temporarily worse. This is known as an asthma attack.
People with asthma have swollen (inflamed) and “sensitive” airways that become narrow and clogged with sticky mucus in response to certain triggers.
Genetics, pollution and modern hygiene standards have been suggested as causes, but there’s not currently enough evidence to know if any of these do cause asthma.
A number of things can increase your chances of getting asthma. These include:
Some people may also be at risk of developing asthma through their job.
Asthma symptoms often occur in response to a trigger. Common triggers include:
Once you know your triggers, trying to avoid them may help control your asthma symptoms.
Asthma UK has more information on asthma triggers.
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In some cases, asthma is associated with substances you may be exposed to at work. This is known as occupational asthma.
Some of the most common causes of occupational asthma include:
Paint sprayers, bakers, pastry makers, nurses, chemical workers, animal handlers, timber workers, welders and food processing workers are all examples of people who may have a higher risk of being exposed to these substances.
The main tests used to help diagnose asthma are:
After you’re diagnosed with asthma, you may also have allergy tests to see if your symptoms might be triggered by an allergy.
There’s currently no cure for asthma, but treatment can help control the symptoms so you’re able to live a normal, active life.
Inhalers – devices that let you breathe in medicine – are the main treatment. Tablets and other treatments may also be needed if your asthma is severe.
You’ll usually create a personal action plan with a doctor or asthma nurse.
This includes information about your medicines, how to monitor your condition and what to do if you have an asthma attack.
Inhalers can help:
Some people need an inhaler that does both (combination inhalers).
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Most people with asthma will be given a reliever inhaler. These are usually blue.
You use a reliever inhaler to treat your symptoms when they occur. They should relieve your symptoms within a few minutes.
Tell a GP or asthma nurse if you have to use your reliever inhaler 3 or more times a week. They may suggest additional treatment, such as a preventer inhaler.
Reliever inhalers have few side effects, but they can sometimes cause shaking or a fast heartbeat for a few minutes after they’re used.
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If you need to use a reliever inhaler often, you may also need a preventer inhaler.
You use a preventer inhaler every day to reduce the inflammation and sensitivity of your airways, which stops your symptoms occurring. It’s important to use it even when you do not have symptoms.
Speak to a GP or asthma nurse if you continue to have symptoms while using a preventer inhaler.
Preventer inhalers contain steroid medicine.
They do not usually have side effects, but can sometimes cause:
You can help prevent these side effects by using a spacer, which is a hollow plastic tube you attach to your inhaler, as well as by rinsing your mouth or cleaning your teeth after using your inhaler.
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If using reliever and preventer inhalers does not control your asthma, you may need an inhaler that combines both.
Combination inhalers are used every day to help stop symptoms occurring and provide long-lasting relief if they do occur.
It’s important to use it regularly, even if you do not have symptoms.
Side effects of combination inhalers are similar to those of reliever and preventer inhalers.
You may also need to take tablets if using an inhaler alone is not helping control your symptoms.
LTRAs are the main tablets used for asthma. They also come in syrup and powder form.
You take them every day to help stop your symptoms occurring.
Possible side effects include tummy aches and headaches.
Theophylline may also be recommended if other treatments are not helping to control your symptoms.
It’s taken every day to stop your symptoms occurring.
Possible side effects include headaches and feeling sick.
Steroid tablets may be recommended if other treatments are not helping to control your symptoms.
They can be taken either:
Long-term or frequent use of steroid tablets can occasionally cause side effects such as:
You’ll be monitored regularly while taking steroid tablets to check for signs of any problems.
Other treatments, such as injections or surgery, are rarely needed, but may be recommended if all other treatments are not helping.
For some people with severe asthma, injections given every few weeks can help control the symptoms.
The main injections for asthma are:
These medicines are not suitable for everyone with asthma and can only be prescribed by an asthma specialist.
The main side effect is discomfort where the injection is given.
A procedure called bronchial thermoplasty may be offered as a treatment for severe asthma. It works well and there are no serious concerns about its safety.
You will be sedated or put to sleep using a general anaesthetic during a bronchial thermoplasty. It involves passing a thin, flexible tube down your throat and into your lungs. Heat is then used on the muscles around the airways to help stop them narrowing and causing asthma symptoms.
Several complementary therapies have been suggested as possible treatments for asthma, including:
There’s little evidence to suggest many of these treatments help.
There’s some evidence that breathing exercises can improve symptoms and reduce the need for reliever medicines in some people, but they should not be used instead of your medicine.
If you seem to have occupational asthma, where your asthma is linked to your job, you’ll be referred to a specialist to confirm the diagnosis.
If your employer has an occupational health service, they should also be informed, along with your health and safety officer.
Your employer has a responsibility to protect you from the causes of occupational asthma. It may sometimes be possible to: