What is asthma?

Asthma is a long-term condition that can cause wheezing, breathlessness and coughing. In the UK 5.4 million people are receiving treatment for asthma (NHS Choices). It often starts in childhood, but can happen for the first time at any age. The severity of symptoms varies from person to person. Asthma can be controlled well in most people most of the time.
Asthma is caused by inflammation of the airways, in particular, small tubes called bronchi. If you have asthma, the bronchi will be more sensitive than normal because of this inflammation. 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). This makes it difficult to breathe and causes wheezing and coughing. It may also make your chest feel tight.
There is a wide variation of experience of asthma ranging from very mild and occasional breathlessness and wheezing, through to very debilitating symptoms. Symptoms can come and go throughout life.
A number of treatments can help control the condition very effectively. Treatment is based on two important goals:
  • relief of symptoms 
  • preventing future symptoms and attacks from developing
The treatment of asthma has been steadily improving in the last few decades. Treatment options have increased and there is a greater awareness about asthma both among health professionals and the public. Many practices now have specialist asthma nurses.
Sometimes the symptoms of asthma may worsen or be difficult to control. A severe onset of symptoms is known as an asthma attack or an 'acute asthma exacerbation'. Asthma attacks may require hospital treatment and can sometimes be life-threatening, although this is rare.
The number of both children and adults diagnosed with asthma has risen over the last few decades. It is not clear how far this is because there are more people with the condition or because diagnosis is now more accurate. There are some concerns that it is being ‘over-diagnosed’ in people with very mild and temporary symptoms. Some people we talked to felt that the rise in the number of people with the condition has made it more visible, and that it is therefore better understood and accepted by others than it was in the past.


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