Asthma is a common long-term condition that can cause coughing, wheezing, chest tightness and breathlessness. It is caused by inflammation of the small tubes, which carry air in and out of the lungs. Asthma can develop at any age, including in young children and older people.
Symptoms of asthma
The symptoms of asthma can range from mild to severe. Most people will only experience occasional symptoms, although a few people will have problems most of the time.
The main symptoms of asthma are:
- wheezing (a whistling sound when you breathe)
- shortness of breath
- a tight chest – which may feel like a band is tightening around it
These symptoms are often worse at night and early in the morning, particularly if the condition is not well controlled. They may also develop or become worse in response to a certain trigger, such as exercise or exposure to an allergen.
You should speak to your GP if you think you or your child may have asthma.
You should also talk to your doctor or asthma nurse if you have been diagnosed with asthma and you are finding it difficult to control your symptoms.
When asthma symptoms get significantly worse, it is known as an asthma attack or "acute asthma exacerbation".
Asthma attacks often develop slowly, sometimes taking a couple of days or more to become serious, although some people with asthma are prone to sudden, unexpected severe attacks.
It is important to recognise attacks early and take appropriate action.
During an asthma attack, the symptoms described above may get worse.
If you're already on treatment, your inhaler medication may not work as well as it normally does, or you may need to use your inhaler more often to relieve your symptoms.
If you think you or your child are having an asthma attack, don't ignore it. Use your asthma action plan if you have one.
Contact your GP or asthma clinic as soon as possible, if:
- you or your child does not have an action plan
- following the steps in your action plan does not lead to an improvement in the control of your or your child’s symptoms
When to seek immediate medical help
Signs of a particularly severe asthma attack can include:
- your reliever inhaler (which is usually blue) is not helping symptoms as much as usual, or at all
- wheezing, coughing and chest tightness becoming severe and constant
- being too breathless to eat, speak or sleep
- breathing faster
- a rapid heartbeat
- feeling drowsy, exhausted or dizzy
- your lips or fingers turning blue (cyanosis)
Call 999 to seek immediate help if you or someone else has symptoms of a severe asthma attack.
If you have asthma you should be able to lead a full and unrestricted life. With the right treatment you can control your asthma and keep your symptoms at bay.
There are a variety of different treatments and medications for asthma, including inhaled medication and tablets.
Some of the medication used to treat asthma, called relievers, work to relieve your symptoms when they happen, while others, called preventers, help to control your symptoms and stop them happening.
It is important to take your medication as prescribed.
Causes of asthma
It's not clear exactly what causes asthma. Although the cause of asthma is unknown, a number of things that can increase your chances of developing the condition have been identified. These include:
- a family history of asthma or other related allergic conditions (known as atopic conditions) such as eczema, food allergy or hay fever
- having another atopic condition
- having bronchiolitis (a common childhood lung infection) as a child
- childhood exposure to tobacco smoke, particularly if your mother also smoked during pregnancy
- being born prematurely, especially if you needed a ventilator to support your breathing after birth
- having a low birth weight as a result of restricted growth within the womb
Some people may be at an increased risk of developing asthma by repeatedly breathing in certain substances, such as those related to their work. Many chemicals and types of dust can cause asthma symptoms.
Living with asthma
Your asthma may get better or worse at different times. There may be periods when you have asthma symptoms, but in between you may be generally well, possibly for many years.
Below are some things you can do to help keep your asthma under control.
Self care is an integral part of daily life. It involves taking responsibility for your own health and wellbeing, with support from those involved in your care.
Taking your medication
It's important that you or your child take any medication as prescribed, even if you start to feel better.
If you have any questions or concerns about medication you or your child are taking, or its side effects, talk to your doctor or asthma nurse.
As asthma is a long-term condition, you'll be in regular contact with your healthcare team.
You or your child should have checks at least once a year to make sure the condition is under control and your current treatment is still appropriate.
You or your child should ask about a self-management action plan if you do not have one. Having a plan will help you know what to do if your (your child’s) symptoms get worse.
If you have asthma, you may be advised to have a yearly flu jab to protect against flu as getting flu may make your asthma more difficult to control.
You may also be advised to have a one-off injection that protects against a specific serious chest infection called pneumococcal pneumonia.
Children with asthma should still have all their routine vaccinations.
If you smoke and have asthma, you should stop smoking as this can significantly reduce the severity and frequency of your symptoms.
Smoking can also reduce the effectiveness of asthma medication.
There is free specialist advice available to help you quit smoking.
Stop smoking support services, through GP practices and community pharmacies, are available across Northern Ireland.
If you do not smoke and have asthma, try to avoid being exposed to tobacco smoke because this may trigger your symptoms.
If your child has been diagnosed with asthma, you should try to make sure that nobody smokes around them.
More useful links
- How to use your health services
- Air pollution and health
- Air quality in Northern Ireland
- Support for chest conditions
The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.
For further information see terms and conditions.