Learning that you or your child has asthma can be frightening. However it is important to recognise the symptoms and speak to your doctor as soon as possible if you suspect the condition as a quick diagnosis will lead to you getting the medical help and support that you need to help avoid severe attacks.
Most sufferers develop the condition in childhood although doctors are reluctant to confirm the diagnosis in a child under two years of age.
Asthma develops in some people because the tubes which carry air to their lungs (the airways) are chronically inflamed, so that person is sensitive to certain triggers which will bring on an asthma attack. Genetic factors influence whether a person is likely to develop asthma. Triggers can be allergens such as dust mites or pet dander, or can be caused by breathing in irritants such as car fumes, cigarette smoke or cold air.
Is it asthma? Signs to look out for
Most people with asthma only show symptoms occasionally. When symptoms get worse this is described as an “asthma attack”. The attack may come on suddenly or may develop gradually over several days or even longer. Do not ignore the following symptoms:
- Wheezing- a high pitched, whistling sound when breathing out. This is the most common symptom.
- Coughing is the second commonest symptom. The cough may well be worse at late at night or first thing in the morning or after exercise. In some people coughing fits are brought on by heightened emotional states such as when laughing or crying.
- Shortness of breath/ labored breathing.
- Tightening of the chest. Some people describe this as a feeling that a band is being tightened around the chest. Children with asthma may complain of chest pain or stomach ache.
- Difficulty keeping up with exercises which used to be easy or which others of the same age find easy.
- A child with asthma may have a history of recurrent bronchitis or bronchiolitis.
- Babies with asthma may be reluctant to feed as they will find it difficult to suck. The baby’s cry might be softer or shorter.
Not all of the symptoms might be present. For example, in a severe attack the person may not be wheezing. Sometimes the above symptoms may be signs of something other than asthma such as bronchitis, pneumonia, lung or heart disease. See your doctor for an accurate diagnosis and to help prevent symptoms from getting worse.
Being overweight, a smoker or passive smoker can make symptoms more likely to occur. Some individuals experience a worsening of their symptoms at times of hormonal change such as during pregnancy or menopause.
If your symptoms seem to be getting worse, this may be a sign that your asthma could be better managed. Speak to your doctor or asthma clinic about changing or increasing the dose of your medication (for example you may benefit from using a daily asthma preventer inhaler as well as your usual reliever). Whether or not your symptoms are getting worse you should meet your doctor or asthma nurse every 6 to 12 months for a review of your asthma management. It is recommended that children with asthma have a review at least every 6 months.
A severe attack: Call an ambulance or seek immediate medical help
Many people with asthma never experience a severe attack. In most people with the diagnosis, severe attacks can be avoided by good asthma management. A severe attack can be life-threatening and should be treated as a medical emergency. Whilst waiting for medical assistance use the asthma reliever inhaler (which is often blue) to try to bring symptoms under control. Do what you can to reassure the patient and try to keep calm.
Any of the following symptoms could be signs of a severe asthma attack:
- Wheezing, coughing or chest tightness which is severe or constant
- Breathing faster than usual. The person may be too breathless to talk, eat or sleep. They may need to stop speaking in the middle of a sentence to catch their breath.
- Symptoms may not be improved by use of the asthma reliever inhaler.
- The abdomen may be seen to be sucked under the ribs when taking breaths. It may look as though the stomach muscles rather than chest muscles are being used for breathing.
- Weakness, dizziness.
- Rapid movement of the nostrils.
- Cyanosis- the lips, face or fingernails may turn blue. This is a sign of low oxygen levels in the blood.
Severe Asthma and Difficult to Control Asthma
Severe asthma is a rare type of asthma, affecting around 4% of asthma sufferers. Just because you have had one or more severe attacks does not necessarily mean that you have this type of asthma. People with severe asthma are likely to need closer medical supervision, usually by a hospital consultant and may find that the relievers and preventer inhalers used by most asthma patients are not enough to bring their condition under control. They may have been prescribed oral steroids.
Difficult to control asthma is found in around 13% of asthma patients, usually among those who are smokers or who have other long term medical conditions. These persons are likely to experience difficulty breathing most of the time.