In the UK, 5.4million people have asthma, a long-term condition in which the airways, the tubes that carry air in and out of your lungs, become inflamed and make it hard for people to breathe.

The condition can have a huge impact on people’s lives – their health, work and relationships – and it’s natural that when people are diagnosed they may have difficult emotions and unanswered questions. But there is help.

Sonia Munde heads up the helpline at Asthma UK, where a team of nurses offer advice and support for people with asthma. Here she shares five common questions people with asthma ask – and the answers.

1. How can I make sure my asthma is well controlled?

The good news is that when asthma is well managed, most people should be free of symptoms which can include wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath or a tightness in the chest. There are tried and tested ways to help you stay well with your asthma, such as getting into a good routine of taking your asthma medicines and making the most of your annual asthma review, an appointment with your GP or asthma nurse where you can talk about your asthma and ways to better manage your symptoms.

At Asthma UK, we’d advise people to take their medicines as prescribed (including their brown preventer inhaler and blue reliever inhaler), follow a personalised written asthma action plan and let their GP or asthma nurse know if they are getting regular symptoms. People with asthma can speak to their GP, asthma nurse or pharmacist for support on how best to manage their asthma or visit asthma.org.uk/manage

2. How do I know when to go to A&E?

If you are having an asthma attack, you need to call an ambulance to get to A&E as soon as possible for the urgent treatment you need. You’re having an asthma attack if any of the following happens:

  • Your reliever isn’t helping or lasting over four hours
  • Your symptoms are getting worse (cough, breathlessness, wheeze or tight chest)
  • You’re too breathless or it’s difficult to speak, eat or sleep
  • Your breathing is getting faster and it feels like you can’t get your breath in properly.  

When you go to A&E, remember to take your written asthma action plan with you

For more information on asthma attacks, visit NHS choices.

3. Is it safe for my child to take asthma medicine containing steroids?

Some parents worry about their children taking steroids, often because of the myth that taking inhaled steroids stops children growing properly. Research does show there’s a slight link between inhaled steroids and growth, however, any reduction in height is described as ‘insignificant’. It’s reassuring to remember that the steroids in a low-dose preventer inhaler are unlikely to cause side effects because the inhaled medicine goes straight down to your airways where it’s needed. Very little is absorbed into the rest of the body.

Taking inhalers containing low-dose steroids makes it less likely that your child will experience symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, chest tightness and shortness of breath. It also means it’s less likely that they will react to asthma triggers, such as pollen or pollution. This reduces their risk of having an asthma attack.

Some children will be prescribed steroid tablets. Short occasional courses of these, taken for no longer than three weeks are very unlikely to cause troublesome side effects.

4. Is there a link between asthma and hay fever?

Hay fever is an allergy to pollen, a tiny powder-like substance produced by certain types of trees, grasses and weeds, and causes symptoms such as a runny nose, sneezing and itching.

Around 80% of people with asthma also have hay fever and you are more likely to suffer from asthma if you have an allergy like hay fever.

If you have asthma and hay fever it’s really important to treat your hay fever. Research shows that if you treat your hay fever, as well as your asthma, you’ll cut your risk of going to hospital with an asthma attack.

Your hay fever treatment will depend on how severe your symptoms are. Speak to your GP or pharmacist about the best medicine to treat your symptoms. It could include antihistamines, decongestant nasal spray, eye drops, salt water solutions, steroid nasal sprays.

5. Is it safe to exercise when you have asthma?

Exercise is good for everyone, including people with asthma. If your asthma is well controlled, you should be able to join in, have fun and keep fit.

For people with asthma there are many benefits to regular exercise including; improving how well your lungs work so you have more stamina and get less breathless, boosting your immune system so your asthma’s less likely to be triggered by coughs and colds and supporting weight loss, which will cut your risk of symptoms and an asthma attack.

However, for some people, exercise can lead to asthma symptoms because usually you breathe in through your nose, which means the air is warmed and moistened, but when you exercise you tend to breathe faster and in through your mouth, so the air you inhale is colder and drier. The airways are sensitive to these changes in temperature and humidity and they react by getting narrower.

Exercise is more likely to trigger asthma symptoms if your asthma isn’t well managed so we’d advise people with asthma to speak to their GP or pharmacist. Some pharmacists can check people are taking their inhaler correctly and others can check that they have an up-to-date written asthma action plan and that they attend their annual asthma reviews.

Asthma facts:

  • Asthma is a long-term condition in which the airways, the tubes that carry air in and out of your lungs, become inflamed. The muscles around the walls tighten, and start to swell and sticky mucus builds up. This narrows the airways, making it hard for people to breathe.
  • Common asthma triggers include cold air, dust mite faeces, pollen or pets.
  • 5.4million people in the UK have asthma – around 1.5million are children
  • Asthma is serious. In 2016, 1,410 people died from an asthma attack in the UK*
  • The best way to prevent an asthma attack is to avoid any known triggers and to take your preventer inhaler (usually brown) as prescribed by your doctor.
  • If you have asthma you should receive basic care from your GP including a written asthma action plan, which explains how to manage your asthma and what to do if it gets worse, and an asthma review once a year to check your medicines are working properly.
  • If you need support on managing your asthma visit asthma.org.uk/manage . or call the nurse-staffed helpline at Asthma UK or call 0300 222 5800

* These are the most recent published figures

Asthma UK provides advice and guidance to people with the asthma through its website and nurse-staffed telephone helpline. It also funds research into a cure for asthma. For more information on allergies and asthma, visit asthma.org.uk/triggers or call 0300 222 5800 (Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm).