Asthma information

Why am I having difficulty breathing sometimes?


Asthma is a common condition that affects the lungs and airways. It affects 5.4 million UK residents, 1 in 11 children and 1 in 12 adults. If asthma is not managed properly, this leaves you at risk of an asthma attack which causes around 3 deaths every day in the UK. 

Asthma symptoms

Asthma affects your breathing and usually flares up after coming into contact with a trigger. The symptoms include a tight chest, wheezing, breathlessness and coughing. 

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Asthma attacks 

An asthma attack is a medical emergency. It happens when your asthma symptoms worsen to the point where you cannot breathe properly. The signs of an asthma attack are: 

  • Exacerbation of coughing, breathlessness, chest tightness or wheezing 
  • Your reliever inhaler is not working 
  • Your breathing is getting increasingly faster, feeling like you can't catch your breath
  • Being too breathless to be able to speak, eat or sleep
  • You score lower than usual with a peak flow meter 
  • In children, they may experience a stomach ache or chest pain 

An asthma attack might occur suddenly or your symptoms might gradually become worse. Either way, if it happens then follow these steps: 

  1. Get into an upright position and remain calm. Try to focus on slowing your breathing 
  2. Take a puff of your blue reliever inhaler every 30-60 seconds without exceeding 10 puffs 
  3. If you don't have your inhaler or it doesn't help call an ambulance and let them know you are having an asthma attack 
  4. You should always call an ambulance if you feel uncertain about what to do or you don't know whether or not your inhaler is helping
  5. After an asthma attack, once you've left the hospital, see your GP within 48 hours for a review of your medication 

What causes asthma? 

There are a variety of risk factors that can make you more likely to have asthma. For example:

  • A family history of the condition 
  • Other allergies 
  • A history of bronchiolitis 
  • Being exposed to tobacco smoke during childhood 
  • Premature birth 
  • Occupational hazards 

What triggers asthma? 

People with asthma have sensitive airways which are prone to inflammation. This results in a narrowing of the airways with mucus clogging them up, making it harder than normal to breathe. There are certain triggers that cause this to happen where asthma symptoms then flare-up. These can include: 

  • Exposure to allergens 
  • Exposure to smoke and pollution 
  • Emotional reactions 
  • Cold or hot weather 
  • Medicine 
  • Damp or poorly ventilated conditions 
  • Mould 
  • Exercise 
  • Viral infections  

How is asthma treated? 

Asthma is managed by taking medicine in the form of an inhaler. This means you are breathing in the medication directly to your lungs where it's needed. There are three types of inhalers to treat asthma: 

  • Reliever- usually blue in colour, a reliever inhaler (such as a Ventolin Evohaler or Salamol Easi-Breathe) should be used when asthma symptoms are present for immediate relief, or in the case of an asthma attack
  • Preventer- these are steroid inhalers which are used every day to stop symptoms from flaring up and cannot be used during an asthma attack 
  • Combination- this is a mixture of both reliever and preventer medications for more severe asthma 

Occupational asthma  

Occupational asthma is caused by exposure to irritants while you are doing your job. If you have only just started to have asthma symptoms as a result of your job then this is classed as occupational asthma. Common jobs where this occurs include: 

  • Bakers 
  • Vets and animal carers 
  • Paint sprayers 
  • Anything involving chemicals 
  • Nurses 
  • Timber workers 
  • Welders 
  • Food processors 

The triggers which often cause occupational asthma are: 

  • Chemicals in spray paint 
  • Flour
  • Grain dust
  • Latex 
  • Animal hair and fur 
  • Wood dust 

How to manage asthma 

After being diagnosed with asthma, you'll be given a written asthma plan from your doctor with details of your medications, how and when to take them and steps to take should you experience an asthma attack. Make sure you know how to use your inhaler properly and if you have a preventer inhaler keep using it every day even if you feel better. Record your symptoms in a diary to figure out what your triggers are. Write down as many details as you can about when they occurred and what environmental factors were present. 

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NHS> Asthma
Asthma UK> Asthma Facts and Statistics

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