Blog Asthma Explained
More than five million people in the UK have asthma, according to NHS figures. But what exactly is this medical condition, what causes it and can it be cured? In this post, we answer all of these questions and more.

What is asthma?

A long-term lung condition, asthma affects the airways, making them inflamed and sensitive. It causes occasional breathing difficulties, and common symptoms include breathlessness, a whistling sound when breathing, a tight feeling in the chest and coughing. The severity differs from person to person. In most cases, patients can manage their asthma well by using a preventer inhaler on a regular basis, and a reliever inhaler if their symptoms get worse. However, around 5% of people with this condition have severe asthma, meaning they experience symptoms most of the time and find them hard to control.

Typically, asthma starts in childhood, but it can develop in adulthood too.

What is an asthma attack?

Every 10 seconds someone in the UK is experiencing a potentially life-threatening asthma attack. During these acute episodes, the muscles surrounding the bronchial tubes constrict, narrowing the airways. These passages in the lungs also become inflamed, swollen and narrowed. At the same time, there is an increase in mucus secretions from the mucus membrane in the airways. All of these problems can make it harder for the patient to catch their breath. As well as causing breathing issues, an asthma attack can result in difficulty speaking, eating or sleeping.

Mild attacks might only last for several minutes, but more serious ones can last for anything from a few hours to days. Often, the best way to resolve an attack is to use a fast-acting inhaler.

What causes asthma attacks?

People sometimes experience asthma attacks seemingly randomly, but there are a number of known potential triggers. These include exposure to pollen, pet dander, smoke, pollution, chemical irritants and mold. Infections such as colds and the flu can also make an attack more likely, as can exposure to cold air.

How to know if you have asthma

If you think you may suffer from this medical problem but have not yet been diagnosed, there are a number of warning signs to be aware of. Bear in mind that, even if you do have asthma, you may not experience all of these symptoms – and they may come and go. As mentioned previously, signs can include coughing, tightness in the chest, shortness of breath and wheezing.  

If you experience one or more of these problems, you should make an appointment with your doctor. If it turns out that you do have asthma, getting a diagnosis quickly will mean you can start controlling the condition as soon as possible.

Can asthma get worse in winter?

You may notice asthma symptoms getting worse in winter, and there are a number of possible reasons for this. For example, as touched on earlier in this blog, cold air can worsen the symptoms of asthma. Also, infections that can act as triggers (such as colds and the flu) tend to be more prevalent once temperatures drop.

The fact that you spend more time indoors during winter can also exacerbate asthma symptoms because it means you are exposed to indoor triggers more than during the warmer months. Windows in houses tend to be left shut, meaning there may be more irritants in the air. Also, wood burning stoves and open fires can make asthma worse.

How to prevent asthma in winter

To keep asthma symptoms at bay as much as possible during the chillier months, try to keep your house well ventilated and avoid wood burners and open fires if possible. Also, when you’re outside, consider wrapping a scarf loosely around your mouth and nose to help warm the air you breathe in. This should reduce any irritation of your airways.

Is asthma curable?

Unfortunately, asthma is not curable. For most people who suffer from it, it is a lifelong condition. However, there are safe and effective asthma medications that can be used to minimise symptoms. Inhalers are the main treatment, but tablets and other interventions may be needed in severe cases.

If you have asthma, as long as you follow the advice of your doctor and take the treatments recommended to you, you should be able to lead a normal, active life.

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