About Asthma

Introduction to Asthma

Asthma is a common and increasing condition, affecting some 5-8% of the U.K. population i.e. up to 5 million sufferers.

Most major hospitals and many GP surgeries now have specific clinics advising on asthma and managing the treatment of the asthmatic patient.

Asthma is a chronic condition with acute episodes, characterised by shortness of breath, wheezing and coughing. These acute attacks may be provoked by a number of triggering factors.

As yet there is no "cure" and treatment is aimed at managing the condition, minimising acute episodes and controlling these when they occur.

Asthma sufferers may be restricted in a number of physical activities but with the right treatment this can usually be minimised e.g. Olympic medals have been won by competitors with asthma.

Asthma remains however a potentially serious medical condition with some 2000 certified deaths a year attributed to it. Adequate monitoring and prompt treatment is essential.

A number of other breathing disorders such as chronic bronchitis and emphysema may have a reversible component and Asthma Relief also provides assistance and support for sufferers from such conditions.

Asthma Information Sheet

Asthma belongs to a group of conditions known as atopic or allergic, these include eczema, hay fever, general allergies and possibly migraine.

There is a strong hereditary component and asthma is being recognised and diagnosed at a much younger age now with conditions such as wheezy bronchitis being considered as early asthma.

In general those who develop asthma in childhood improve with age, many "growing out" of the condition by their late teens. Asthma, however, can develop at any age with a second peak occurring in the sixth decade.

Asthma is characterised by intermittent episodes of coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath.

These episodes may be triggered by a variety of provoking agents, such as intercurrent infections e.g. colds, temperature changes, dust, exercise, stress, environmental pollution and specific antigens like pollen, animal fur and house dust mite.

Three factors in the airways contribute to the signs and symptoms of an acute attack of asthma:

  1. Airway narrowing due to constriction of the smooth muscle of the airway.
  2. Inflammation and swelling of the lining of the airway.
  3. Increased production of mucous in the airway.

Treatment of asthma is aimed at controlling the above factors.

Management of Asthma

It is vital that the asthmatic patient is under the right medical care - this may be undertaken by a hospital consultant, a general practitioner or a specialist nurse. The frequency with which they need to be seen and the nature of their treatment will vary according to the severity of their particular condition.

Self monitoring is a vital component of the management of asthma. The patient will be taught how to recognise and assess their symptoms. The peak flow meter is an important tool in this respect and daily measurements will contribute greatly to effective management and often give early warning of a deteriorating situation. Many deaths from asthma, particularly in young adults, are due to a failure to recognise the severity of an attack.

Identification of provoking factors such as cold, pollen, animal fur, house dust, stress etc, and their subsequent avoidance, may make a major contribution to minimising acute attacks.

Smoking and asthma are a potentially lethal combination and avoidance of smoky environments (happily now much easier to achieve) is important.

General factors such as sleep disturbance, exercise tolerance and number of days off work or school, will give a good guide to how effective your current overall management is and may warn of a slowly deteriorating situation.

Treatment Options for Asthma

Treatment for asthma varies widely depending on the severity of the condition.

The mildest of sufferers may find that lifestyle advice such as stopping smoking, avoidance of identified provoking factors and general health care will render them symptom free.

Most patients, however, will require some form of medication either intermittently or on a continuous basis.

Medication available falls into two main categories:

  1. Those that relax the smooth muscle of the airways and open them up
  2. Those that reduce inflammation in the airways

Both types of medication can be delivered in a variety of ways:

  1. By mouth
  2. By inhalation
  3. By injection or intravenous infusion

By inhalation is now by far the most common and a variety of devices are available for delivery ranging from dry powder "puffers" to small machines called nebulisers that deliver the medication in a fine mist. Asthma Relief is very active in the provision and maintenance of these nebulisers.

The doctor or nurse advising you on the management of your asthma will explain the various delivery options. You will be able to choose the one that most suits you in terms of effective use and convenience.

How Your Medication Works

Once your condition has been diagnosed you will probably have been prescribed medication in the form of one or two inhalers, these are usually colour coded, in that, the blue one will contain a bronchodilator and the brown one a steroid.

"The Blue One"
This delivers a medication which relaxes the smooth muscular tube that forms the walls of the airways and has the effect of widening the air passage and improving air entry.

"The Brown One"
This one delivers an anti inflammatory medication usually a steroid and reduces the inflammation that is present in airways of an asthma sufferer, even when they are apparently without symptoms.

In some circumstances your doctor may prescribe an inhaler that contains both the above medications.

Taking medication by inhalation has a number of advantages not the least being convenience but probably more important is the prompt response that is usually achieved and the fact that because the medication is delivered directly to the site of action the actual dosage required is much less than if it were given by other routes.

Regular use of your prescribed medication is essential particularly the "Brown One" even though the benefit may be less dramatically apparent.

An increasing frequency of need to use your "Blue inhaler" should be regarded as an indication of a deteriorating situation and further medical advice sought.

In a deteriorating situation your doctor may increase or change your medication; he or she may add an antibiotic if it is felt there is infection present or more commonly give you a course of steroids to take by mouth to reinforce your brown inhaler.


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