It affects one in 12 people in the UK and is one of the fastest growing conditions in young people. gives you all the facts.

Boy taking his asthma pump

Take a deep breath.

What is asthma?

Asthma is caused by inflammation and narrowing of the airways in the lungs, which makes breathing difficult. This is caused by too much mucus in the lungs, or swelling or spasms of the airways.

Symptoms of asthma

Signs you may have asthma include wheezing and breathlessness, a “tight” chest and a dry cough. Symptoms are usually worse at night or early morning, and the feeling of not being able to breathe properly can be very distressing.


Some asthmatics only need medication in the event of an attack, whereas other need medicine daily. There are a number of treatments:

  • Inhalers: The most common form, inhalers, or “puffers”, deliver a measured dose of medication in aerosol or powder form, and are breathed in through the mouth. They come in two forms – “preventers”, which are taken as prescribed and do not have immediate effect, and “relievers”, which relieve the symptoms of an attack straight away.
  • Tablets: If the condition is severe or unpredictable, a course of steroids may be prescribed, and they work by reducing inflammation of the airways. A newer form of tablet treatment is leukotriene antagonists, which are usually taken with inhalers.
  • Nebulisers: A device that creates a mist of water and asthma medicine that is then breathed in. These are usually used in hospitals in the event of a serious attack, but a few people have them at home.
  • Spacers: Are usually used by people who find inhalers awkward. They are long tubes that clip onto an inhaler, with a mouthpiece attached.

Asthma attacks

An asthma attack is when the symptoms of asthma get worse. You might feel really short of breath, find it difficult to speak, eat or sleep and your inhaler might not be as effective.

This may lead to medical attention and possibly hospital treatment, and in rare cases, attacks can be fatal.

When you have an asthma attack, follow these steps:

1. Take one or two puffs of your inhaler.
2. Sit down, take slow steady breaths.
3. If you don’t feel better, take two puffs of your inhaler ever two minutes – you can take up to 10 puffs.
4. If you don’t feel better after this, call 999.
5. If an ambulance doesn’t arrive in 10 minutes and you still feel unwell, repeat step 3 again.

You can get a free asthma attack card which explains what to do from Asthma UK, keep this on you and give it to close friends or family.

Asthma triggers

Asthma attacks can be triggered by:

  • Allergens, such as animal hair, house dust mites;
  • Physical exertion;
  • Exposure to cold air;
  • An infection;
  • Reaction to certain medicines e.g. aspirin;
  • Chemicals found in the work place;
  • Pollutants, such as cigarette smoke.

Not all asthmatics have “allergic asthma” (asthma worsened by allergens), but those that do normally suffer from hay fever and eczema as well.

Can I go out if I have Asthma?

The smoke and closed spaces in clubs might trigger your asthma. So make sure you take an inhaler with you and tell the friends you’re with about your asthma, just in case. Take an asthma attack card out with you to remind you what to do, and you could give some to your friends as well.

Can I get help paying for asthma medication prescriptions?

If you’re aged under 18 and in full time education you can get prescriptions for free. Prescriptions are also free if you’re on some benefits, like income support or JSA.

If you’re not entitled to free prescriptions, they cost £7.85. But, there are several schemes which can help you pay for your asthma medication:

Disabled students allowance – If you’re a student and have asthma you might be eligible for this. Find out how to apply on the website.

NHS low income scheme – Can help with the cost of prescriptions. To get this you need to fill in a HC1 form which you can find here.

Pre-payment certificates – If you need a lot of prescriptions over a year, rather than paying for one at a time you can pay for them all at once, which could work out cheaper. Check the maths and apply on the NHS business services authority website.

If you think you may have asthma

Your GP can diagnose asthma using a device called a peak flow meter, which measures the amount and the speed of air expelled from your lungs. But it’s not always easy to diagnose, as there are other respiratory problems that appear similar to asthma.

Photo of man taking asthma pump by Shutterstock.

Next Steps

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Updated on 29-Sep-2015