Do I have asthma?

Do I have asthma?

5.4 million people in the UK are currently receiving treatment for asthma.

Living with untreated asthma may in the long run lead to your airways becoming permanently narrower, says asthma and allergy specialist Göran Zetterberg.

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? Asthma is a collective term for different diseases of the respiratory tract, all giving rise to similar symptoms – easily irritated airways that tend to contract and to cause breathing difficulties. It is possible to have an asthmatic illness over a long time without being aware of it. 

The majority of people with asthma suffer from a mild version and never notice any greater physical limitations. If the asthma slowly deteriorates it is also common that the affected person, without being aware, adjusts to the new conditions and doesn’t notice the deterioration, says asthma and allergy doctor Göran Zetterberg. He often meets patients who throughout their whole lives have been suffering from asthma without being aware. 

This is unfortunate, because there is actually help and treatment available. If you’ve had asthma since you were a child it might be that you’ve never experienced what it’s like to breathe normally. You have no idea how good you would have felt if you didn’t have asthma, he says.

Allergy – a risk factor for asthma

Asthma diseases vary over time and are affected by what you do. Even athletes may have an asthmatic illness without noticing it. They may produce normal results in lung function tests using so called spirometer, and may exercise without experiencing any symptoms. It is only when they start training intensely that they will notice their asthma symptoms.

"Many of the people coming to see me, and who without knowing they have had asthma for a long time, also suffer from some kind of allergy. An allergic reaction can quickly make the symptoms of asthma deteriorate, and if you get a cough when exposed to something you’re allergic to, then you have your asthma", he says.  

The risk of being affected by asthma is also increasing if you carry certain genes, if you have grown up in a smoky environment, if your mother was smoking when pregnant, or if you were affected by an RS-virus in your childhood. When Göran Zetterberg meets a patient who might have asthma, he asks some specific questions in order to find out if the patient is somehow limited in his or her daily life because of poor lung function. He then tests the lung function in a more objective way using spirometry or  spirometer and bronchodilating medication, to see if the patient’s results are better after having taken the medication. He sometimes performs a skin prick test to see whether the patient has any allergies, and if needed, there are even more thorough lung function examinations that can be performed.

The importance of treating asthma correctly

When a patient receives an asthma diagnosis, it implies adjustments to new habits. The disease must be treated regularly, usually with inhaled medications which come in a variety of inhaler types. 

Asthma patients have to get to know their disease, to recognise their symptoms and learn to use their asthma inhalers correctly. The treatment is decided depending on the lung function at the moment, or on how the patient is feeling. But for some people it is difficult to recognise a change for the worse.

Göran Zetterberg says that if an asthma disease is allowed to continue for a long time without being treated, the lung function can become chronically reduced. The tissues of the respiratory tract will then adjust to the contracted shape and will not be able to get back to their original, expanded state. 

"I usually tell my patients that they have to understand that their condition is serious. Most people may get back some of the lung function after receiving the right treatment, but it is very important to treat asthma in time and in the correct manner."

Contact your doctor and ask for an evaluation if you suspect you may have asthma. 


1. Date accessed November 2015


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

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