What is asthma?
Learn all about this common disease and how to treat it.
Alexander Pan avatar
Written by Alexander Pan
Updated over a week ago

Asthma is a relatively common chronic respiratory condition. It is also a major noncommunicable disease (NCD) - i.e it's not spread through infection or other people - that affects both children and adults.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), an estimated 235 million people globally currently have asthma. Although asthma cannot be cured, it can be managed with medication, lifestyle changes and self-care measures.

As this is a common disease that can potentially result in death, we're going to take a deep dive into what asthma is, what causes it, the signs and symptoms, and how to treat it.

What is asthma?

Asthma is an inflammatory disease that affects the airways (the breathing tubes that carry air into our lungs) by causing the muscles to tighten and the lining to be swollen and inflamed, which can cause wheezing, shortness of breath and chest tightness.

What causes asthma?

Triggers for asthma symptoms vary from person to person but can include things such as:

  • Viral infections (colds)

  • Exercise

  • Dust

  • Smoke

  • Fumes

  • Changes in the weather (such as thunderstorms and spring weather)

  • Grass and tree pollen

  • Animal fur and feathers

  • Strong soaps and perfume.

As for what exactly causes asthma, the exact reasons are not yet known. However, research has found several factors linked to an increased risk of developing this disease:

  • Genetics and/or a family history of asthma

  • Existing allergic conditions

  • Urbanisation - i.e lifestyle factors including smoking and vaping

  • A history of viral infections

  • Early life events, such as low birth weight, prematurity, and exposure to smoke and air pollution

  • Exposure to environmental allergens and irritants

  • Obesity.

Signs and symptoms

The most common signs and symptoms of asthma include:

  • Wheezing – a high-pitched sound coming from the chest while breathing

  • Shortness of breath

  • Tightness in the chest

  • Coughing

  • Rapid breathing

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Fatigue

  • Anxiety.

You don't need to have all these symptoms to have asthma. For some people, symptoms can be worse depending on the time of day or during exercise.

How to treat and manage asthma

Treating asthma can be managed through proper treatment and care. In general, the main goals of asthma management include:

  1. Controlling the symptoms, such as wheezing, coughing and breathing

  2. Preventing asthma attacks and exacerbations

  3. Maintain normal lung function

  4. Prevent the need for emergency medical care.

In terms of medication, there are several types that can aid in the assistance of prevention, control and maintaining symptoms. The typical two main types of medication are:

  • Relievers - These act quickly to relax the muscles around the airways. This medication is used during an asthma attack.

  • Preventers - These slowly make the airways less sensitive to triggers and reduce inflammation inside the airways. Taken daily to help keep you well.

A combination of both relievers and preventers may also be used, though this is dependent on the person. Asthma affects people differently, so it's very important to go see a GP. They will prescribe the correct medication and explain how to use it.

For the management of asthma, it's important that people who suffer from it to:

  • Regularly see a GP for check-ups and work together to manage the disease.

  • Understand what their asthma triggers are as this can be different for everyone.

  • Try to avoid or reduce your exposure to these triggers.

  • Use medications as instructed by their GP.

  • Use their inhaler correctly, including using a spacer where required.

  • Follow their written asthma action plan.

What to do if someone has an asthma attack

How to give medication

Administering aid for asthma attacks follows the four steps of asthma first aid known as ‘4x4x4’ and requires an asthma puffer. Use a spacer if one is available.

A spacer is used to make it easier for people with asthma to inhale their medicine. It is a plastic container with a mouthpiece at one end and a hole for the inhaler at the other.

1. Give 4 separate puffs of blue/grey reliever puffer: • Shake the inhaler • Give 1 puff • Take 4 breaths • Repeat until 4 puffs have been given.

2. Wait 4 minutes.
3. If there is no improvement, give 4 more separate puffs of blue/grey reliever as above.

4. If the patient still cannot breathe normally, call triple zero (000) for an ambulance. 5. Keep giving 4 puffs every 4 minutes (as above) until medical aid arrives.

What to do when you don’t have an inhaler

  1. Sit upright. Bending over or lying down can constrict your breathing even more.

  2. Take long, deep breaths. This helps to slow down your breathing and prevent hyperventilation. Breathe in through your nose and breathe out through your mouth.

  3. Try to stay as calm as possible. This may prevent further tightening of your chest muscles and make your breathing easier.

  4. Get away from the trigger. The asthma attack could be triggered by dust, cigarette smoke or the smell of certain chemicals. Remove yourself from the trigger as soon as possible and go to an air-conditioned environment or any place with clean air if possible.

  5. If the wheezing, coughing, and breathing difficulty do not subside after a period of rest, seek immediate medical attention.

If you have an asthma attack or have any asthma-related issues, our team of trained nurses at Sonder can help support you. Just remember that if you need support or someone to talk to, our Sonder support team is available 24/7 to chat whenever you need it.

If you have any questions or need extra support, we're here to help you anytime in any language. Simply start a chat with us via the home screen of the Sonder app.

Image credit: Sahej Brar at Unsplash

All content in Sonder's Help Centre is created and published for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice.

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