Introduction 

Asthma is a common long-term condition that can cause coughing, wheezing, chest tightness and breathlessness.

The severity of these symptoms varies from person to person. Asthma can be controlled well in most people most of the time, although some people may have more persistent problems.

Occasionally, asthma symptoms can get gradually or suddenly worse. This is known as an "asthma attack", although doctors sometimes use the term "exacerbation".

Severe attacks may require hospital treatment and can be life threatening, although this is unusual.

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.

Read more about the symptoms of asthma and diagnosing asthma.

What causes asthma?

Asthma is caused by inflammation of the small tubes, called bronchi, which carry air in and out of the lungs. If you have asthma, the bronchi will be inflamed and more sensitive than normal.

When you come into contact with something that irritates your lungs  known as a trigger  your airways become narrow, the muscles around them tighten, and there is an increase in the production of sticky mucus (phlegm).

Common asthma triggers include:

  • house dust mites
  • animal fur
  • pollen
  • cigarette smoke
  • exercise
  • viral infections

Asthma may also be triggered by substances (allergens or chemicals) inhaled while at work. Speak to your GP if you think your symptoms are worse at work and get better on holiday.

The reason why some people develop asthma is not fully understood, although it is known that you are more likely to develop it if you have a family history of the condition.

Asthma can develop at any age, including in young children and elderly people.

Read more about the causes of asthma.  

Who is affected?

In the UK, around 5.4 million people are currently receiving treatment for asthma.

That's the equivalent of 1 in every 12 adults and 1 in every 11 children. Asthma in adults is more common in women than men.

How asthma is treated

While there is no cure for asthma, there are a number of treatments that can help control the condition.

Treatment is based on two important goals, which are:

  • relieving symptoms 
  • preventing future symptoms and attacks

For most people, this will involve the occasional  or, more commonly, daily  use of medications, usually taken using an inhaler. However, identifying and avoiding possible triggers is also important.

You should have a personal asthma action plan agreed with your doctor or nurse that includes information about the medicines you need to take, how to recognise when your symptoms are getting worse, and what steps to take when they do so.

Read more about treating asthma and living with asthma.

Outlook

For many people, asthma is a long-term condition particularly if it first develops in adulthood.

Asthma symptoms are usually controllable and reversible with treatment, although some people with long-lasting asthma may develop permanent narrowing of their airways and more persistent problems.  

For children diagnosed with asthma, the condition may disappear or improve during the teenage years, although it can return later in life. Moderate or severe childhood asthma is more likely to persist or return later on.

Asthma: an animation

Asthma is a chronic condition affecting the lungs which can be managed but not cured. This animation explains in detail what happens when someone has asthma.

Media last reviewed: 22/11/2013

Next review due: 02/11/2015

All about asthma

According to Asthma UK, one in five homes has someone living with asthma

Page last reviewed: 31/07/2014

Next review due: 31/07/2016