You will never know just how much you value your breath until you can’t breathe

World Asthma Day is held on the first Tuesday of every May and it lands this year on 7th May.

The aim of World Asthma Day is to raise awareness, care and support for those affected by asthma. Whilst the primary focus is supporting the person with asthma, support may also extend to family, friends and caregivers.

And with a recent study finding that four million cases of childhood asthma could be caused by air pollution from traffic - around 13% of those diagnosed each year, it’s worth taking a breath to think about it and learn a bit more.

What is asthma?

5.4 million people in the UK are currently receiving treatment for asthma: 1.1 million children and 4.3 million adults.

Asthma is a long-term condition that affects your airways, i.e. the tubes that carry air in and out of your lungs. Some believe that someone with asthma has “sensitive” airways that are inflamed and ready to react when they come into contact with something they don't like.

When a person with asthma comes into contact with something that irritates their sensitive airways even more (an asthma trigger), it causes their body to react:

  • The muscles around the walls of the airways tighten so that the airways become narrower
  • The lining of the airways becomes inflamed and starts to swell
  • Sticky mucus or phlegm sometimes builds up, which can narrow the airways even more.

These reactions cause the airways to become narrower and irritated - making it difficult to breathe and leading to asthma symptoms, such as chest tightness, wheezing, or coughing. Symptoms can range from mild to severe between different people and at different times in the same person. Each episode of symptoms may last just an hour or so, or persist for days or weeks unless treated.

Asthma can be fatal, so if you have any symptoms, see your GP. In a severe attack, call 999 if you have taken reliever treatment (inhalers) and are still struggling to breathe.

What are the symptoms of asthma?

The usual symptoms include wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath and tightness in the chest. Not everyone will get all of the symptoms. Some people experience them from time to time, but otherwise live normal lives doing everything they want to do with very few symptoms.

Unfortunately, about five percent of people with asthma have what is known as severe asthma, and they require specialist care and support to manage symptoms. Others have asthma symptoms all the time because they're not taking their medicines, or not taking their medicines correctly.

What causes asthma?

People with asthma have sensitive airways that are inflamed and are ready to react to triggers that set off symptoms. Although asthma is complicated, there are two main ways that symptoms can be set off:

  • If you have allergic asthma, your symptoms are caused by an allergic reaction when you come into contact with an allergen (a substance that triggers an allergic reaction). Common allergens include pollen, pets and house dust mites
  • If you have non-allergic asthma, your symptoms are caused by an irritant you breathe in or another factor, but are not caused by an allergic reaction. Common irritants include cigarette smoke and car exhaust fumes. Common factors that can trigger asthma symptoms include exercise, cold weather, colds and flu.

It is possible that your asthma symptoms can be caused by allergic and non-allergic triggers, which means you can have both allergic and non-allergic asthma. Asthma also tends to run in families, especially when there's also a history of allergies and/or smoking.

What can make asthma symptoms worse?

Things that may trigger asthma symptoms include:

  • Infections: particularly colds, coughs and chest infections
  • Pollens and moulds: asthma is often worse in the hay fever season
  • Exercise: however, sport and exercise are good for you if you have asthma. If necessary, you can use an inhaler before exercise to prevent symptoms from developing. However, exercise-induced asthma often represents undertreated asthma. If it occurs, it may indicate a need to step up your usual preventer treatment
  • Certain medicines such as aspirin, ibuprofen and beta-blockers
  • Smoking and cigarette fumes
  • Other fumes and chemicals
  • Certain pillows and mattresses
  • Allergies to animals
  • House dust mites
  • Some foods: this is uncommon
  • Emotion: asthma is not due to “nerves”; however, such things as stress, emotional upset, or laughing may trigger symptoms.

How is asthma diagnosed?

Sometimes symptoms are typical and the diagnosis is easily made by a doctor. If there is doubt, some simple tests may be arranged. These include spirometry and a peak flow meter assessment.

What are the treatments for asthma?

For most people with asthma, the symptoms can be prevented most of the time with treatment. This includes inhalers that deliver a small dose of medicine directly to the airways. The dose is enough to treat the airways – patients are usually given a reliever to help when symptoms occur and a preventer to prevent the airways from becoming inflamed. Talk to your GP for more details. You should also make sure to get your annual flu shot as a flu infection can be much worse for those with asthma.