A guide to asthma attacks

Everything you need to know


Asthma affects roughly five million people in the UK – that’s 1 in 12 adults and 1 in 11 children. Despite being fairly common, it is poorly understood by those who don’t suffer from the condition. Research has shown that as much as 73% of people wouldn’t know what course of action to take if they were present when someone had a serious asthma attack. With this guide to asthma’s symptoms, causes and treatment options, you can better understand the condition and how it affects those who suffer from it.

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Common Symptoms of Asthma

Asthma has a range of symptoms, which vary in severity and from person to person. Some asthma sufferers experience symptoms almost all the time, while others only have them occasionally. The most common symptoms are wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath and tightness in the chest. This tightness is sometimes described by sufferers as feeling like a band is tightening around the chest, restricting breathing. In a small minority of people, these symptoms are so severe that current medicines are ineffective, but for most asthma sufferers, it is a manageable condition.

Sometimes, symptoms can suddenly become worse, as the muscles surrounding the airways tighten, and their lining becomes inflamed. This is what’s known as an asthma attack. As well as the usual symptoms becoming more severe, an attack may also be accompanied by additional problems. These include rapid breathing, dizziness, blue lips and tightening of muscles in the neck and chest. During an attack, an asthma sufferer may find that medication that is normally effective doesn’t help to stop the symptoms from getting worse.

The Causes of Asthma Attacks

There are two main types of trigger for asthma attacks. For those with allergic asthma, attacks can be triggered by certain allergens. Common airborne allergens are animals, pollen and dust, but there may be others as well.

People who have non-allergic asthma may have attacks triggered by a range of different factors. For some, breathing in pollutants like cigarette smoke or traffic fumes can irritate the airways, making symptoms worse or triggering an attack. For others, it can be set off by exercise, stress or cold air, or by having an illness that affects the respiratory tracts, such as a cold or the flu.

Some people are affected by both allergic and non-allergic triggers. Whatever the triggers affecting an individual, people with asthma often find their symptoms are worse at night or in the mornings, making an attack more likely. This is because the body stops producing steroids while we sleep, and these help to control inflammation.

Prevention and Management

Knowing and understanding individual triggers is key to managing asthma and preventing attacks. Avoiding these triggers wherever possible will vastly reduce the likelihood of an attack; in particular, doing whatever possible to reduce or remove allergens from the home is highly important. Together with taking medication as instructed, this will greatly help improve the life of an asthma sufferer.

Developing a written asthma action plan with a healthcare professional helps to ensure that someone with asthma is doing everything possible to manage their condition. It helps people to recognise early warning signs so that they can take action effectively, and to keep on top of treatment. People who use an asthma action plan have been shown to be four times less likely to need hospital treatment as a result of their asthma.

Treatment Options

There are various different treatments available for asthma, and a doctor will tailor them to the needs of the individual. Many of these medicines come in the form of an inhaler, which allows them to reach the lungs directly for greater effectiveness.

Some people require long-term, daily medicines to control their asthma. Preventative inhalers contain steroid medicines in low doses, to help control inflammation in the airways. These are usually taken twice daily and gradually become more effective over time. Because of this, it’s important that someone prescribed a preventative inhaler doesn’t stop using it even if they feel well. In some situations, short courses of steroid tablets may be given as a preventative measure.

A different type of inhaler, known as a Reliever (such as a Ventolin Evohaler or Salamol Easi-Breathe), is used to treat symptoms as and when they appear and can stop them from becoming worse if taken in time. Sometimes, those with asthma are given a plastic device called a spacer to use with their inhaler. Inhaling the medicine through the spacer helps more of it to reach the lungs, and makes using the inhaler easier. In an emergency, a nebuliser may be used. This creates a mist of medicine, providing more at once and helping it to get to the lungs.

Whichever type of drug treatment is recommended, using it as prescribed as part of an asthma action plan helps people to live full, normal lives and minimise their risk of attacks.

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