It is not definitively known what causes asthma, but it is likely to be a combination of factors. There is some evidence to suggest that asthma is a genetic condition, with children whose parents suffer from asthma being more likely to develop asthma themselves. Exposure to irritants such as cigarette smoke and air pollution are likely to contribute to asthma and are certainly irritants, though there is little evidence to suggest that they are the cause. The hygiene hypothesis, the suggestion that being in a very clean environment growing up can lead to a lack of exposure to certain substances, may also be a factor in the development of asthma.

Symptoms of asthma

Asthma is a potentially serious condition, though many people only experience mild symptoms. The most common symptoms include wheezing (a ‘whistling’ sound when you breathe), a feeling of tightness in the chest, shortness of breath and coughing. These symptoms are often worse at night and early in the morning, in the cold, or when exercising. Sometimes asthma can be triggered by exposure to an allergen, such as pollen. Another key symptom is what is known as an asthma attack, or ‘acute asthma exacerbation.’ This is when asthma symptoms become unmanageable and the patient experiences shortness of breath, fast breathing and a fast heartbeat, and being unable to eat, drink or sleep.

Treatments for asthma

The most common treatment for asthma is the use of inhalers, devices that deliver drugs directly to the lungs as the patient breathes in. These may contain steroids or other medication specific to the type and severity of the asthma. There are two main types of inhaler – preventer inhalers that are usually administered daily or regularly to prevent symptoms, and reliever inhalers that are taken when the patient is feeling short of breath or struggling with other symptoms. Other types of treatment for asthma include theophyllines, preventer tablets that help to stop the swelling of the airways, and steroid tablets for when other medications are not working sufficiently. A new drug called Xolair works by binding to the protein involved in the immune response, reducing its level in the blood. For more information on any of these treatments, discuss them with your GP.

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