Setting the Record Straight on Asthma…  

Istockphoto © Young woman having asthma attack. She is holding asthma inhaler. Pic: Istockphoto

Dr Andy Whittamore is Asthma UK’s Clinical Lead and a GP with a specialist interest in asthma. Here, he offers expert advice on how people can stay well with asthma and sets the record straight about common myths surrounding the condition.

When you have asthma, it can have a huge impact on your life but with the right management, you can keep your asthma symptoms in check and lead an active life.

What is asthma?

Asthma is a long-term breathing condition that affects 5.4million people in the UK. Asthma is a condition caused by the inflammation in the lungs that can come and go depending on your own pattern of triggers. This inflammation narrows the airways, leading to symptoms such as breathlessness, chest tightness, wheezing, or coughing.

Asthma triggers

An asthma trigger is anything that irritates the airways and sets off asthma symptoms. The most common asthma triggers include colds and flu, dust mites, cold air, pollen and pollution, but things like mould, food allergies and even stress and hormones can be triggers.

Asthma symptoms

You don’t need to have all these symptoms to have asthma.

How do you treat asthma?

The best way you can protect your airways from reacting to triggers is to take your preventer inhaler (usually brown) as prescribed. Preventer medicine helps to reduce inflammation and sensitivity in the airways. If you use your preventer inhaler every day as prescribed, your airways will be less sensitive. This means you’ll be less likely to react to your usual asthma triggers.

It’s also vital that you carry your reliever inhaler (usually blue) at all times in case of an emergency. This quickly relaxes the muscles surrounding the airways if you have asthma symptoms, so they can open more widely, making it easier to breathe again.

Spot the warning signs

If you notice the early warning signs of an asthma attack, book an urgent appointment with your GP or asthma nurse.

Early warning signs could be if you need to use your reliever inhaler three or more times a week, are waking up at night because of your asthma and have symptoms such as wheezing or a cough that is worsening or interfering with your work or day-today activities. These could be early warning signs of an asthma attack.

Asthma attack symptoms

An asthma attack is a medical emergency and can be life-threatening.

  • Your blue reliever isn’t helping, or you need to use it more than every four hours
  • You’re wheezing a lot, have a very tight chest, or you’re coughing a lot
  • You’re breathless and find it difficult to walk or talk
  • Your breathing is getting faster and it feels like you can’t get your breath in properly

 You can find out what do in an asthma attack, here.

Myths you need to stop believing

1.You can’t die from an asthma attack

Recent research reveals that one in five people in the UK do not think asthma can be fatal. But in fact, three people in the UK die from asthma attacks every day. Asthma UK says this could be because there are millions of people in the UK not receiving basic asthma care, or not taking their asthma medication regularly. Make sure you have an asthma review with your GP or asthma nurse every year, making sure you’re shown the correct way to use your inhaler and use your written asthma action plan, which includes tips on how to stay well with asthma and what you should do in an asthma attack.

One mum’s story…

2.Asthma is just a kids’ condition

For some children diagnosed with asthma, the condition might improve or disappear completely as they get older but for most people, asthma is a life-long condition.

It can return later in life, sometimes triggered by events such as menopause or lifestyle or environment changes, such as going to a new workplace that means you’re exposed to more of your triggers.

If symptoms do come back, it’s vital that you don’t ignore them and get the treatment you need to stay well.

3.Having asthma means you can’t exercise

There is a misconception that if you have asthma you can’t take part in sport, but in fact many top athletes have asthma including runners Paula Radcliffe and Jo Pavey, and footballer David Beckham. Only a small proportion of people with asthma have what’s known as ‘exercise-induced asthma’, which means they only get symptoms when they do physical activity.

As long as your asthma is well-controlled there is no reason you can’t exercise. If you haven’t exercised before you could start with something simple, like going for a brisk walk every day. The main thing is to find an activity that works for you. If you have asthma symptoms when you exercise, speak to your GP or asthma nurse.

British long-distance runner, Paula Radcliffe, MBE says:

I’ve had asthma since I was a child, but it’s never got in the way of me being active or achieving my athletic dreams.

“If anything, it made me even more determined to reach my potential.

“My biggest piece of advice for people with asthma? Take your preventer inhaler as prescribed and make sure you have your reliever inhaler to hand, to treat symptoms on-the-spot. If your symptoms come on when you’re active in any way, from walking the dog, to Zumba class, don’t second guess it – book an urgent appointment with your GP.

Paula Radcliffe Pic: Rex/Shutterstock

Paula Radcliffe Pic: Rex/Shutterstock

“I truly believe that for many people, if you learn to manage your asthma and take the correct medicines you can still enjoy or even excel at whatever kind of exercise you like doing. I hope I can help people find the confidence to take charge of their asthma.”

Asthma UK provides advice and guidance to people with the asthma through its website and nurse-staffed telephone helpline and funds research into a cure for asthma. For more information on managing your asthma, visit