What is asthma, how is it diagnosed and what treatments are available?

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Asthma is one of the most common chronic diseases in the UK, affecting about five million people. Technical definition of asthma is a reversible airways disease that causes breathing problems. The word back is important and means that treatment can usually alleviate the symptoms and this separates it from other problems in the lungs such as emphysema or chronic bronchitis (now called COPD or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease).

Asthma is a problem for many people because even mild symptoms can get in the way of exercise and it can mean to carry an inhaler around at all times. When more serious, asthma can be life-threatening and requires careful monitoring. Although asthma is not curable it is “back” and therefore is almost always controllable given the right treatment. It is quite possible for a person with asthma to lead a completely normal life with the right combination of treatments.

For reasons that are not fully understood, asthma is on the rise and in fact, the number of asthmatics has risen at least five times in the last 25 years in the UK. Part of this increase may be due to doctors analyze it more often when perhaps in the past it was misdiagnosed. The increase is also thought to be related to increased air pollution levels, but it has not yet been categorically proven. The causes of asthma are not fully understood, although it seems both a genetic predisposition and environmental factors are involved.

What we do know is that during an asthma attack, airways in the lungs become constricted, inflamed and there is excess mucus. This makes it much harder for asthma to breathe deeply in and out, causing shortness of breath and wheezing. Asthma attacks can be triggered by many different factors including allergies (to fur, pollen, etc.), training, viral chest, inhalation of cold air and stress.

Treatment of asthma has advanced greatly in recent years. People live with asthma use either one, or a combination of inhaled (what some asthmatics call “puffers”) that deliver carefully measured dose of medicine in the form of a spray or powder that is inhaled into the lungs. Anti-asthma drugs can be divided into “relievers” used just before or during the attack, and “prev enters” used every day and help to suppress inflammation and reduce inflammation in the lining of the airways.

It is important to remember that asthma is a common disorder that can be mild or severe, but in most cases can be managed with medication, which means that the vast majority of asthmatics can lead a normal life.

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