Currently, 5.4 million people in the UK are receiving treatment for asthma, which is caused by inflammation of the bronchi (small tubes that carry air in and out of the lungs).
Anybody can get asthma, though it does tend to be more common in people with a family history, as well as other allergies.
Thankfully, fatal attacks are rare and largely avoidable, and asthma varies greatly in severity from person to person. But, if you are concerned, see your doctor – if you do have asthma, a diagnosis is crucial so that you can get the advice and medication required to manage it.
Asthma symptoms vary from person to person
Asthma isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ condition. “The most important and interesting thing about asthma is that it varies; minute to minute, day to day, month to month and year to year, so it can be quite difficult for people to spot whether something’s going wrong, or it’s just a normal fluctuation,” says Dr Samantha Walker from Asthma UK.
Asthma has a lot of triggers
Asthma symptoms are usually brought on – or made worse – by ‘triggers’. Common triggers include being exposed to allergens (like pollen, animal hair, house dust mites) and chemicals (like aerosols), as well as exercise, changes in temperature, cigarette smoke, and emotional triggers like stress.
Symptoms may also be worse at night or first thing in the morning. “If you think of asthma as something where your airways are very twitchy, then every time you encounter something that’s going to irritate them you’ll experience symptoms,” explains Walker.
The common signs and symptoms of asthma
Wheezing: Wheezing doesn’t always indicate asthma, but it’s often a common feature. A high-pitched rattle or whistling sound when breathing may be a sign. Walker notes, however, that wheezing can be common and normal in the under-fives. Also, not everybody with asthma wheezes.
Coughing: A persistent cough, when there seems to be no other cause – for example, you don’t have a cold – and which gets worse around triggers, could be a sign of asthma. Walker says: “It’s not like when somebody’s got a cold, where they bring up mucus and the cough sounds bubbly. It’s a drier cough, like your breath catching. So when people take a breath in, it’s like an interruption.”
Shortness of breath: This is often the symptom that confuses people most, as breathlessness can have many causes. Everybody gets out of breath to some degree during strenuous exercise for instance, and people who are unfit will experience this more easily.
However, Walker notes that we have a tendency to put increased breathlessness down to getting older, when in fact it could be a sign of asthma. “If you’re 30 or 40 and you think, ‘Gosh I’m getting old, I can’t do this exercise’ – that’s not age, you’re too young,” she says.
If activities you wouldn’t normally expect to get out of breath doing - like running for a bus, gardening, moderate exercise or walking upstairs - are suddenly, or increasingly, leaving you feeling breathless, it could be due to asthma.
Tightness in the chest: Another common symptom is a feeling of tightness around the chest. Again, this may be due to a number of causes, but it’s not a symptom that should ever be ignored – particularly if it occurs alongside breathlessness. Some people describe it as feeling as though there’s a tight band around their chest, preventing them from fully opening and filling their lungs.
What to do if you have asthma
Asthma UK advises that everybody with asthma has a written instruction plan with a step-by-step outline of what should be done in the event of an asthma attack or emergency.
“A written instruction plan makes you four times less likely to end up in hospital because of your asthma,” says Walker. “Even if you’ve got mild asthma, it should be standard that everybody has one.”