Many people have heard of asthma, or even know someone who has it, but what exactly is it?
What is asthma?
It’s a common lung condition that can cause an occasional difficulty in breathing. There is no cure but there are treatments to manage the symptoms.
Asthma is caused by a swelling to the breathing pipes that allow air to flow in and out of our lungs.
This causes a temporary narrowing which can happen randomly or after exposure to certain triggers.
Triggers include mould spores, smoke, cold air, exercise, infections and others.
Wheezing – this can sound like whistling when you breathe
These symptoms can vary from mild, moderate, to severe and life threatening.
Asthma is usually treated with inhalers, and some people may need to take tablets.
Can it be deadly?
Guess what? It kill 3 people in the UK each day. Every 10 seconds someone has a potentially life-threatening asthma attack. However, being on the right treatment can significantly reduce the risk of having an attack. This is why having a regular check-ups (at least once a year) is crucial! There is an asthma attack risk checker that can help you identify your risk of developing it: https://www.asthma.org.uk/advice/manage-your-asthma/risk/checker/
What does an asthma attack feel like?
Your reliever inhaler is not helping (this is usually the blue inhaler you carry)
You’re too breathless to talk, eat or sleep
You may be breathing faster and having difficulty catching your breath
Your peak flow score is lower than your normal level
Children may complain of chest pain or tummy pain
These symptoms do not always occur suddenly, usually they occur over hours or days.
So what do you do?
Sit up straight and try to keep calm
1 –If you have a reliever inhaler, use it every 30-60 seconds, up to 10 puffs.
2 –If 10 puffs are not helping, or you feel worse then call 999 for an ambulance.
3 – If the ambulance has not arrived in 10 minutes, then repeat step 2.
The paramedics in the ambulance are trained to treat asthma symptoms, and assess whether you need to go to hospital, run tests, or refer you to other services.
After assessing you, the ambulance crew may give you:
A salbutamol nebuliser
Ipratropium bromide, which further opens the airways and can help reduce the mucus.
An injection of a steroid called hydrocortisone. This brings down the swelling around your airways.
An adrenaline injection to open the airways even more if it is a severe attack.
How do we manage asthma?
There is no cure for it, however, treatment can help control the symptoms so you can live a normal and active life. Inhalers are one of the main ways to manage it. These are devices that let you breathe in medicine. Tablets and other medications are sometimes required. Inhalers fall into two categories: those that relieve symptoms; and those that stop symptoms. Some people need combination inhalers that do both.
Most people with asthma will have a reliever inhaler. This is usually a blue one called salbutamol. Reliever inhalers are used to treat symptoms at the time they occur.
Salbutamol may have a temporary side effect of increasing your heart rate.
It’s important to tell your GP or asthma nurse if you need to use a reliever 3 or more times a week, as this may indicate you need additional management to control the it.
Preventer inhalers usually contain a steroid medication. Sometimes they can cause side effects of a sore throat, hoarse voice, or fungal infection. You can reduce the risks of these side effects by using a spacer.
If you’re still experiencing symptoms despite using preventer inhalers regularly, then it may indicate your asthma is not well controlled. Visit your GP or asthma nurse to discuss medication.
You use these every day to help stop symptoms occurring and providing a longer lasting effect if they do occur. Just like the preventer inhalers, it’s important to use combination inhalers regularly. The side effects may be similar to the reliever or preventer inhalers.
Sometimes, you may be given tablets to help control symptoms. These include: Leukotriene receptor antagonists, Theophylline, or steroid tablets.
After an attack
Book an urgent appointment with your GP or your asthma nurse, even if you feel better and have started treatment. It’s recommended to have a same day appointment if you dealt with an asthma attack at home using a blue inhaler but didn’t call an ambulance. Tell the reception that you need an urgent appointment due to an attack. If the hospital treated you, or the paramedics, book an appointment within 2 days.
You may receive a course of steroid tablets to deal with the swelling in the airways. This is usually a temporary course for a week.
Your clinician will also review your current medications and adjust them accordingly.
You may get an action plan so you know what medications to take when.