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Asthma symptoms and causes

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Understand what causes asthma and the symptoms you should look out for.

What is asthma?

Asthma is a condition that affects the airways in the lungs. These get inflamed and then they become narrow and start to swell, reducing airflow. Sometimes phlegm is produced which narrows the airways even more and makes it difficult to breathe.

What causes asthma?

It is hard to say for sure what causes asthma; however, we do know that someone is more likely to develop the condition is they:

  • have a family history of asthma, eczema or allergies
  • have eczema or an allergy, such as hay fever (an allergy to pollen)
  • had bronchiolitis (a common childhood lung infection) as a child
  • were born prematurely and/or had a low birth weight.

It’s also thought that the lifestyle choices that we make including our housing, diet and hygiene practices may contribute to the causes of asthma. Smoking during pregnancy or exposing your child to cigarette smoke early on also increases their risk of developing asthma.

What are symptoms of asthma in adults?

Whether you’ve recently been diagnosed or have lived with the condition for many years, it’s important to understand the symptoms of asthma so you can best manage them.

Asthma symptoms can include:

A persistent cough is a common symptom. It may be dry or contain mucus and get worse at night, or after exercise.

Wheezing is a whistling sound that happens when you exhale. It results from air being forced through narrow, constricted air passages.

Difficulty breathing
Breathing may become difficult if your airways become inflamed and constricted. This can make you feel anxious, which in itself can make breathing more difficult.

Chest tightness
As the muscles surrounding your airways constrict, your chest may tighten. This can feel like someone is tightening a rope around your upper torso.

During an asthma attack, less oxygen gets to the lungs, blood and muscles. Without oxygen, fatigue sets in. If your asthma symptoms are worse at night and you have trouble sleeping, you could feel tired during the day.

Nasal flaring Nasal flaring is the enlargement and stretching of the nostrils during breathing. It’s often a sign of difficulty breathing. This asthma symptom is most common in younger children and infants.

Sighing is a natural physiological response when the lungs expand to full capacity. Because asthma can constrict air flow into your body, you might sigh to get excess air into or out of your body.

Anxiety can trigger an asthma attack or be a symptom of an asthma attack. As your airways start to narrow, your chest tightens and breathing becomes difficult, which can generate anxiety. Being in a stressful situation can also sometimes trigger asthma symptoms.

Rapid breathing
If you’re taking a breath every two seconds while at rest, it’s advised to get medical attention. This is also applicable if you notice your child is breathing more rapidly than normal.

More common in children than adults, retractions occur when the skin and muscles at the base of the throat retract or sink in with each breath. This is a sign that someone is having difficulty breathing, and it’s often caused by asthma.

Workout fatigue
If you have exercise-induced asthma symptoms, speak to your GP about taking medication before you work out. Warming up, cooling down, and staying hydrated can also help.

While not a symptom of asthma itself, acid reflux can trigger asthma symptoms and irritate your respiratory airways. Speak to your pharmacist for advice about avoiding certain foods or taking medication to alleviate it.

How will my asthma be diagnosed?

There isn’t a single test to find out whether you have asthma or another lung condition. When GPs assess patients who are experiencing breathlessness, a cough or other respiratory symptoms, they perform a breathing test to determine how well the lungs are functioning. This involves measuring the amount of air that can be forcefully exhaled from a full breath, through a device called a spirometer.

If you’re having repeated episodes of wheezing, coughing or shortness of breath you should speak to your GP or asthma nurse and re-evaluate at your asthma management plan.

Although they should be able to diagnose and treat your asthma, if your symptoms don’t respond to reliever and preventer inhalers, you may be referred to an asthma specialist for further treatment.

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What are the signs of an asthma attack?

Not everyone that has asthma will experience asthma attacks, but it’s important to know he early signs as well as how you can best avoid your triggers.

Asthma attack symptoms include:

  • Severe coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness
  • Fatigue
  • Itchiness
  • Nervousness
  • Irritability

Severe asthma attack can be life threatening. So, don’t hesitate to call 999 for an ambulance if a reliever inhaler fails to work after 10 to 15 minutes, or if any of the following asthma attack symptoms appear:

  • Discoloured (blue or grey) lips, face, or nails
  • Extreme difficulty breathing, in which the neck and chest may be “sucked in” with each breath
  • Difficulty talking or walking
  • Mental confusion
  • Extreme anxiety caused by breathing difficulty
  • Fever of 100°F (37.7°C) or higher
  • Chest pain
  • Rapid pulse

My asthma symptoms are getting worse

If you notice your asthma symptoms becoming worse and you answer ‘yes’ to any of these three questions, your asthma may not be well controlled:

  • Have you had difficulty sleeping because of your asthma or cough?
  • Have you had symptoms like coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath or a tight chest during the day?
  • Has your asthma interfered with your normal everyday activities?

Another sign that your asthma may not be under control is suddenly needing to use your reliever inhaler more often than usual. We can also give you lots of advice and support on managing your asthma so you can get on and enjoy your life to the full. Just pop into our local LloydsPharmacy for more information.

When it's not asthma

Occasionally, symptoms of asthma can apply to other medical conditions too.

These include:

  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), which is an umbrella term for chronic bronchitis and emphysema
  • Pneumonia, an infection of the lungs
  • Allergies
  • Pulmonary embolism, or a blood clot inside the lung
  • Heart attack
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Environmental pollutants (like dust)
  • Obesity which causes shortness of breath
  • Having a panic attack
  • Hiatal hernia, in which part of the stomach pushes into the chest and affects breathing
  • Food aspiration, when food is sucked in to the respiratory tract while inhaling
  • Tumours in the lungs or the chest

Online Doctor

You can keep on top of your condition with our Online Doctor Service. We can provide you with the preventer and reliever inhalers you need for either same day collection or next day delivery.

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Everyday Health (March 2017)