What is asthma?
Asthma is a long-term condition that affects the airways. Tubes called bronchi, which carry air in and out of the lungs, become sensitive and inflamed and start to react when they come into contact with certain stimuli or triggers. These triggers can be allergic or non-allergic.
Asthma often starts in childhood, but it is also possible to develop asthma for the first time as an adult.
In a child, asthma symptoms typically include:
- a cough that is worse at night or when you’re active
- wheezing (a whistling sound on the chest)
- a tight chest
- breathlessness and shortness of breath
If you think your child is showing signs of asthma, it’s important to speak to a GP or specialist as soon as possible. Although there is no cure for asthma, there are many available treatments and most people are able to successfully manage their issues.
What causes asthma?
We still don’t know exactly what causes asthma, though we know it runs in families, and especially in families with a family history of allergies or smoking.
There is evidence that parents with asthma are more likely to have children with asthma, but we don’t fully understand the genetic basis yet.
How common is asthma?
In many countries, asthma is becoming more prevalent, especially in children.
In the UK, 5.4 million people have been diagnosed as asthmatic. This translates to 1 in every 12 adults and 1 in every 11 children.
Asthma remains a major cause of school and work absences, and the condition costs the healthcare industry a significant amount.
Approximately 5% of people with asthma have severe asthma, which can be life-threatening. Research shows that two thirds of asthma deaths are preventable, yet sadly three people die every day in the UK because of asthma attacks.
What are the risk factors for asthma?
As well as genetic factors, there are some other factors that can make you or our child more likely to develop asthma.
In childhood, asthma affects more boys than girls. In adults, women are more likely than men to develop asthma.
Certain occupations, such as the chemical industry, may be more likely to have asthma. This is often labelled as ‘occupational asthma’.
What are the most common triggers for Asthma?
The most common trigger for asthma symptoms is exposure to an agent that your child is sensitive to. This can be many different things and is different from child to child. Common irritants include animals and pets, household dust mites, mould and fungi, grass, weeds and trees.
Fortunately, most triggers can be identified by specialist tests, and most of them are possible to avoid (most of the time).
Other triggers are more circumstantial and some can be harder to avoid. These include colds and flu, exercise, emotional distress, laughter, cold weather, pollution and exposure to smoke.
How is asthma diagnosed?
In young children, asthma is normally diagnosed by taking a careful and focused medical history, doing a thorough examination, and assessing their response to treatment.
You might also be recommended certain tests, which rule out other conditions that can mimic asthma. These can include chest X-Rays, allergy tests and lung function tests (spirometry).
What treatments are available for asthma?
These days, advancements in medicine mean it’s possible to control asthma so that your child can have a normal life.
Typical treatments and management approaches include asthma education, avoidance of potential triggers, inhalation therapy (inhalers/nebulisers), and the use of systemic anti-inflammatory agents, often called steroids.
Asthma medications are extremely useful and they save lives, but only when taken correctly and consistently – hence asthma education.