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Asthma: symptoms and treatment

Lesley Dobson / 09 June 2016

Asthma affects about 5.4 million people in the UK. Find out more about this condition, triggers, treatment and how to live with asthma.

asthma inhalers
If you have asthma, it's important to have an up-to-date asthma action plan

Asthma is a condition that affects your breathing. It can vary from fairly mild, to severe. Most people who have this condition only have mild symptoms and they don’t always have any symptoms at all.

However, if your asthma is more troublesome, doesn’t conform to a set pattern, or is severe, it can be extremely serious. If this is the case it’s important to know what substances and situations can trigger your asthma, and to always carry your asthma medications with you. (It’s a good idea to carry your asthma medicines with you at all times, even if you have mild asthma, just in case you need them.)

At the moment we don’t know exactly what causes asthma, or why some people have it and others don’t. We do know that you are more likely to have asthma if other people in your family have it.

If you have a family history of conditions involving allergies, such as hay fever, skin allergies such as eczema, and allergies to food, this also increases your likelihood of having asthma. However, you can still have asthma even if no-one else in your family has this condition.

Asthma is quite common and affects about 5.4 million people in the UK. This is equivalent to one out of every 11 people, and one in five households. Asthma can be treated, but at the moment it can’t be cured.

Read more about eczema and its symptoms

How asthma affects your breathing

Asthma is a chronic condition, which means that once you have this condition you’re likely to always have it. Asthma happens when you have inflammation in your airways, which means that they become narrower. This means that it becomes much harder for air to go in and out of your lungs, and you start wheezing and feeling breathless.

Learn more about inflammation and how it affects your body

With this condition, your airways can become very sensitive to asthma triggers, such as dust, pollen or smoke (these triggers vary from person to person). So when you breath in any of your trigger substances your airways are likely to become inflamed and tighten up. This in turn, can make your chest tighten up, can make you wheeze, and can make breathing difficult.

Asthma symptoms include wheezing, coughing, feeling tight-chested. If you have mild asthma, your symptoms are likely to be quite low-key and only happen every now and then.

With moderate asthma, your symptoms are likely to happen more often and to be slightly worse. You may be breathless and wheeze more often, especially early in the morning or at night.

If you have a more serious asthma attack the symptoms will be much stronger. Breathing may be difficult, your wheezing will become worse and your chest will probably feel very tight. You may have trouble saying more than a few words at a time. Asthma symptoms are commonly worse early in the morning and at night, but they can also become more serious if you are near a substance that triggers an attack.

Make sure that you know the signs of a more serious asthma attack, and tell your family and friends, so they know what to look out for, and when to get help. Typical symptoms include struggling to breathe, breathing more quickly, coughing and wheezing. You may also feel increasing tightness around your chest, and a very fast heartbeat, and feeling dizzy and sleepy.

By this stage your reliever inhaler may not be having much effect, so you or someone else should make a 999 call straight away and ask for urgent help.

Asthma triggers

Many different kinds of substances and situations can trigger an asthma attack. These can include chemical and natural substances, emotions, medicines, and the weather.

Summer triggers

Hay fever is a common condition that is linked to asthma. According to Asthma UK, between 20% and 60% of people with hay fever have asthma too. And about 80% of those who have asthma also have a pollen allergy. This can make summer (and spring and autumn) a difficult time for anyone with asthma and pollen allergies.

Having hay fever means that you release something called antihistamine in response to the proteins in pollen. If you have asthma as well as hay fever, this can make your asthma symptoms worse.

You can help prepare for the summer months by finding out which pollens cause you problems. Keeping a record of when you have hay fever and asthma, and the month, time of day, and your location at the time, can help you work out what your triggers are.

The Met Office has a useful pollen calendar that shows the main release periods for different types of pollen. For instance, oak trees produce pollen from April to June, pine trees produce pollen from April to late July, and lime trees produce pollen from June to August.

Grass pollen is released from May to September. And according to the Met Office 95% of people with hay fever are allergic to grass pollen. Weed pollen causes hay fever sufferers trouble too. Oilseed rape pollen is around from March to July, while nettle pollen is released from May to September.

It isn’t just the summer months that can make life more difficult for people with asthma.

Learn more about hay fever

Winter triggers

Cold temperatures are a common and serious trigger for asthma. Just breathing in cold air can start your asthma symptoms of a tight chest and difficulty breathing.

According to Asthma UK three quarters of those of us who have asthma say that cold air sets their symptoms off. A simple way of easing this problem is to cover your nose and mouth with a scarf, to warm up the air you take in when you breathe.

Having a cold or flu can make your asthma worse, so it’s important to take sensible precautions. You should use your preventer inhaler regularly, as your doctor has prescribed. Find out whether you can increase this dose, (and how much you can increase it by) if you are having an asthma episode, or if your asthma has become worse.

Always have your reliever inhaler (usually blue), with you, in case you have trouble breathing. And make sure that you have a backup inhaler in case the first one runs out.

If you think your asthma is getting worse generally, for instance, you are coughing more, your chest feels tight more frequently, or you are wheezing, and having trouble speaking, see your GP.

If you, (or someone you are with) have a serious asthma attack and are struggling to breathe, can’t speak, and the reliever inhaler isn’t having any effect, call 999 for emergency medical help.

Find out more about colds and how to ease the symptoms.

Other triggers

A wide range of triggers can set your asthma off, or make it worse. Laughing, for instance, or stress or being upset, can do this. And while exercise is good for you, this can also start your asthma off. If this happens, check with your GP to see whether you should use your inhaler more often, either before or during exercise, or both.

Smoking and other people’s cigarette smoke are common asthma triggers. Try to avoid being with people who are smoking, and if you smoke, having asthma is a very good reason to stop. Air pollution generally can be a trigger, so try to avoid it if you can.  Steer clear of busy roads at rush-hour for instance, if at all possible.

Being unwell, especially if you have a chest infection, cough or cold, can set your asthma off, as can some medicines. Aspirin, anti-inflammatory painkillers (ibuprofen), and beta-blockers can trigger asthma.

Asthma Treatment

If you are diagnosed with asthma your doctor is likely to prescribe two different inhalers for you. The one that often comes in a brown case, is the preventer. You take this inhaler to stop asthma attacks from starting. Preventer inhalers generally contain steroids. You will usually use this inhaler every morning and the evening, to help prevent asthma attacks.

You will also have a reliever inhaler, which usually comes in a blue case. These inhalers contain short-acting beta antagonists (SABAs). Using this inhaler should help ease your asthma symptoms once they have started, by relaxing the tightened muscles that have narrowed your airways. Once the muscles relax, your airways widen, allowing you to breathe more easily.

It’s important to keep an eye on how well your symptoms are responding to your medication. If you find that it isn’t working well, see your GP or asthma nurse to discuss whether you need to increase your dose, or need to try a different medication.

Make sure you see your GP or asthma nurse regularly if you have the condition. They will want to know how often, and how severely you are having asthma. They will check that you are taking your medicine correctly, and may suggest trying different medications if they think they may work better for you.

It’s also important to have an up-to-date asthma action plan. This will be written specifically for you and needs to be updated regularly.


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.