What is asthma?

Asthma has been increasing constantly during the last 50 years and is especially common in the industrialised world. 5.4 million people in the UK are currently receiving treatment for Asthma, meaning it affects 1 in 5 households.1

Asthma is a chronic inflammation of the mucous membranes in the respiratory tract, causing the muscles around the airways to contract more easily and the mucous membrane to swell. This means that the flow of air into the lungs is limited, which may cause a cough or breathing difficulties. Mucus production, wheezing sounds coming from the chest and problems affecting the nose and sinuses are other common symptoms of an asthma attack.

It has not been entirely clarified what causes asthma, but there are many things suggesting that air pollution, allergies, poor indoor environment and the use of chemicals have contributed to the increasing number of asthma attacks. Hereditary disposition plays an important part as well, since the risk of contracting asthma is significantly higher if one or both parents have it. The disease usually first appears in childhood but may start at any age.

Different types of asthma

Asthma is usually divided into two subgroups: allergic asthma, which is the most common type of asthma among children and adolescents, and non-allergic asthma, dominating among adults. Allergic asthma is triggered by exposure to something you are hypersensitive to, usually pollen, pets or dust mites. The antibodies of the body then start an allergic reaction that manifests as asthma.

Non-allergic asthma can be triggered by infections of the respiratory tract (usually viruses), cold air, some medication, irritating substances like perfume, tobacco smoke, exhaust fumes form cars and physical exertion.

Living with chronic asthma

Asthma affects everyone differently and to a different degree. Most asthmatic people suffer from a mild form of the disease and are able to live normal lives without experiencing any attacks. But some people suffer from severe or chronic asthma, where the problems affecting the airways are constant, and for them asthma may lead to severe or even life threatening problems. Typical for a person with asthma is that the lung function varies periodically – from severe shortness of breath and mucus in the airways one day, to no troubles at all the next day. Asthma cannot be cured and is therefore regarded as a chronic disease, but if the asthma first appears in childhood the chances are fairly strong that the symptoms will become softer with age. Viral-induced asthma in children under the age of two years old may in some cases disappear with age. In adults there are successful treatment of asthma with bronchodilator medication and corticosteroids for inhalation. Untreated asthma may, on the other hand, limit the chances of an active life and lead to unnecessary hospital stays.

How do I know if I have asthma?

If you experience symptoms like heavy breathing, wheezing sounds as you breathe, prolonged cough or shortness of breath in connection with a cold or when you apply physical effort, you should contact your doctor. Your doctor will be able to give you more information on asthma and be able to schedule an appointment for a physical examination. The doctor will map your medical history and your symptoms, as well as perform one or more pulmonary function tests in order to determine if it is asthma that is causing your problems. Usually you will also be tested for allergies with a blood test or a skin prick test.


When you know what is causing your asthma attacks it is a good idea to avoid the triggering factors as much as possible – tobacco smoke and asthma is, for example, not a good combination. By using the correct medicines it is possible to free yourself from asthma symptoms without excluding any of your normal activities. The most important thing is to follow your doctor’s treatment plan in order to decrease the inflammation of the airways in the long run, and thereby decrease the risk of mild symptoms as well as acute attacks. In order to do this, small amounts of corticosteroid are inhaled one to four times a day, depending on the severity of your asthma.

Should you, despite the preventive medication, experience acute problems; there are different types of bronchodilator medicines available. They relieve the muscle contraction of the airways, and make it easier to breath. What separates them from each other is how fast the effect will come (1-20 minutes) and how long it lasts (3-12 hours). 




1. Date accessed November 2015.


UK/GEN/15/0055   Date of Preparation: December 2015 

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Do you have asthma?

Is it sometimes hard for you to breathe during exercise? Do you suffer from pain or tightness in the chest, whistling sounds or a cough as you inhale cold air, or do you suffer a prolonged cough after colds?  

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