Asthma is a common condition which affects the airways. It causes shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing, production of phlegm (mucus) and tightness of the chest. A severe asthma attack can cause sweating, a high pulse rate, blue lips, a pale and clammy complexion and distress.

Asthma can affect people of all ages but it is particularly common in children. Many children grow out of the condition as they get older. It can run in families and commonly affects those who also suffer from eczema or hay fever.

Causes

Asthma is characterised by inflamed and obstructed airways. The cause of asthma is not fully understood but there are several known triggers:

  • Allergy - asthma can occur when your body produces an allergic reaction to a foreign substance known as an 'allergen'. Allergens can include house dust mites and their excrement (faeces), moulds, animal fur, animal skin flakes (dander), feathers, chemicals, cigarette smoke, fumes, flour dust, sawdust, pollen and certain medicines
  • Exercise - strenuous exercise or overexertion can also lead to an asthma attack
  • Emotions - excitement or stress can trigger an attack
  • Weather - extreme weather conditions, especially the cold can lead to an attack
  • Infection - catching a cold or 'flu can make asthma worse

Avoiding Asthma

  • If possible, try to identify and avoid whatever is triggering your asthma
  • Keep your home well ventilated by opening windows. An air purifier or air ionizer may improve air quality within the home
  • Keep your home free from clutter and dust regularly with a damp cloth, especially those areas which are difficult and out of reach. Vacuum carpets and soft furnishings regularly. If you are asthmatic, wear a protective mask when doing these jobs
  • Use anti-allergy bedding or cover your mattress with protective allergy covers
  • Do not smoke and avoid smoky atmospheres
  • Aspirin and ibuprofen can make asthma worse. Do not take these medicines or any cough and cold remedies containing these products
  • Take regular, moderate activity rather than suddenly overexerting yourself
  • Avoid animals if they make your asthma worse
  • If you are overweight, talk to your doctor about starting a weight reducing diet. Research has shown that breathing becomes easier in overweight asthma sufferers once they have lost weight

Treatment

There is no cure for asthma but there are many treatments available to both prevent and treat the condition. Most asthma treatments are in the form of inhaled medicines, which deliver the medicine directly to the airways, where it is needed. They fall into one of two categories: 'relievers' and 'preventers'. Reliever medicines (bronchodilators) are often packaged in a blue inhaler. They help to relieve an attack by opening up the airways, making breathing easier. Preventer medicines should be taken regularly to prevent attacks. They usually contain corticosteroid medicines, which help to suppress inflammation. Sodium cromoglicate can be inhaled to prevent asthma attacks, especially before exercise.When To See A DoctorGo and see your doctor if you develop asthma symptoms for the first time or if your symptoms do not improve after treatment. If you are with someone who is having a severe asthma attack which does not improve after taking a reliever medicine, call an ambulance immediately.Additional InformationInformation about hay fever and eczema is also available.

For more information about asthma, contact the National Asthma Campaign, Providence House, Providence Place, London N1 0NT. Tel: 0171 226 2260. Fax: 0171 704 0740. Website address: www.asthma.org.uk