All about asthma

According to the charity Asthma UK, one in five households has someone living with asthma.

No one knows for sure what causes asthma, but we know that you're more likely to develop it if you have a family history of asthma, eczema or other allergies. You're twice as likely to develop asthma if your parents have it.

Modern lifestyles, such as housing and diet, may have also contributed to the rise in asthma over the last 30 years.

Research shows that smoking during pregnancy increases the risk of your child developing asthma. Children whose parents smoke are also more likely to develop it. 

There are many theories about what's caused the increase in people with asthma.

One of the most popular is the 'hygiene hypothesis'. According to this theory, asthma is more common in Western societies. Because Western society is becoming cleaner, we have less exposure to allergens and pathogens.

Smoking and asthma

Hygiene hypothesis

According to the hygiene hypothesis, young children who aren’t exposed to infectious agents, micro-organisms and parasites may be more susceptible to allergic diseases.

When a person with asthma comes into contact with a ‘trigger’, their airways become irritated. The muscles tighten, the airways narrow and the lining of the airways gets inflamed and swollen.

The main symptoms are chest ‘wheeze’ or noisy breathing, chest tightness and breathlessness. You may also develop a cough, particularly at night, but this is more common in children.

Boys under the age of two are more susceptible to asthma because their airways are narrower when they're younger. But they usually grow out of it, whereas girls are more likely to have asthma beyond puberty.

Obesity is thought to make asthma more likely. Symptoms often get better when the person loses weight.

Smoking also has a definite impact. Parents' cigarette smoke will affect their child’s lung function development, and it irritates the airways. People with asthma are advised not to smoke.

Once you have asthma, high levels of pollution and smoking may make it worse. But there's no proof  that these triggers actually cause it.


How to help yourself 

If certain things trigger your asthma, such as dust mites, minimise your exposure to them. Put mattress covers on your bed, use a damp cloth when you dust, don't have too many soft furnishings in your house, and put down laminate or wooden flooring instead of carpets.

Asthma triggers

Asthma triggers include pets, but studies show that getting rid of animals doesn't improve asthma. In fact, the emotional upset of getting rid of your pet may make your asthma worse. Keep your exposure to pets to a minimum in areas such as the bedroom, and don't replace pets when they die.

Asthma medicines

If you have symptoms more than three times a week and you need to use a reliever inhaler (usually blue), also use a preventer inhaler (usually brown). However, if you only have symptoms a few times a week when exercising, you can manage your symptoms safely with a reliever inhaler before you exercise.

Asthma is an inflammatory disease. This means preventative treatment is vital, and you must take it even when your asthma symptoms aren’t present. This will ensure your asthma is well-controlled.

Review your treatment with your asthma nurse or GP at least once a year because you might be able to reduce your dosage of medicine.

Find out more information about asthma treatments.

Fears about steroids

Because asthma is caused by an inflammation of the airways, anti-inflammatory drugs such as steroids are sometimes used to treat it.

You may be concerned about the potential side effects of steroids, such as weight gain, stunted growth (in children) and weakened bones.

The risk of side effects if you or your child are using a steroid inhaler is lower than with steroid tablets because less of the medicine gets into your system. With both steroid inhalers and tablets, the risk of side effects increases if the dose is high and if you use them for long periods.

Generally, if inhaled steroids are carefully prescribed and at the lowest dose needed, the risk of side effects is outweighed by the ability to reduce you or your child's need for steroid tablets. But if you're concerned, discuss the risks of steroid treatment with your doctor.

If you have queries about any aspect of asthma, you can call the Asthma UK adviceline, which is a free telephone helpline staffed by asthma nurse specialists on 0800 121 6244. 

Find asthma services in your area.

Child asthma

Around one in ten children in the UK has asthma. Find out what triggers it, the treatment options and how your child can be active despite having asthma.

Media last reviewed: 20/01/2013

Next review due: 20/01/2015

Page last reviewed: 13/02/2012

Next review due: 13/02/2014


How helpful is this page?

Average rating

Based on 13 ratings

All ratings

Add your rating


The 3 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

steely said on 12 May 2011

i have been diagnosed with asthma since i was 8, I was then described as a " chesty kid " 44 years ago, my then
doctor suggested to my mother to get me involved in as much sport as possible to exercise my chest. From that
moment on, with the aid of "tedrol" then ventolin I have
enjoyed sport to quite a high level in football, swimming and cycling beating heallthy individuals in all sports I took part in - Asthma need not hold you back if properly controlled. In my later life I decided to completely refurbish my home and chose a leather suite instead of cloth , wooden and carndene floors and new bedding, curtains beds etc. that was 5 years ago, since that date I have not suffered Asthma at all since and do not use an inhaler at all. I continue to exercise daily " cycling and swimming " have no aches or pains, good flexibility for my age and a body mass index of 23, I do not need to diet to maintain my weight and cannot recommend enough the benefits of exercise and looking after yourself.

Report this content as offensive or unsuitable

Bradfordman said on 07 May 2009

I am 31 and a doctor that I know asked me why I was coughing. I said I often did after playing 5-a-side football the day after. I went to my GP and did some tests to find out that I had mild asthma and 'exercise induced' asthma... I'm officially allergic to exercise!!!

I use an inhaler now before exercise, which means I can enjoy football more - but I still feel it and struggle to keep up with others. Mind you, these young uns can't half run around!

Report this content as offensive or unsuitable

gemdan said on 29 May 2008

I have asthma, for the last 5 weeks I have not smoked, and I am now more breathless than before, but on the positive side I do not have pains n my legs now therefore I can walk further, I am 63.

Report this content as offensive or unsuitable

Services near you

Find addresses, phone numbers and websites for services near you



Advice on allergies such as eczema and food allergy, and what treatments are available on the NHS

Lose weight

Weight loss resources to help you lose weight healthily, including the NHS 12-week diet and exercise plan

Living with asthma

Information on diagnosing, treating and living with asthma, as well as what to do during an asthma attack