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What is Asthma?

Asthma is a long-term condition that affects the lungs. Often starting in childhood, asthma causes swelling and narrowing of small tubes that carry air in and out of the lungs, causing coughing and shortness of breath.

Asthma is very common, affecting 2 out of every 10 people in Scotland. Over 5 million people in the UK require treatment for asthma.

There is no cure for asthma and the cause is not always clear. However, your symptoms can be controlled with treatment and avoiding triggers that can make it worse.

Common symptoms of asthma

If you have asthma, you may experience one of more of these symptoms:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Chest tightness

These symptoms usually come and go and can change throughout the day. They can happen at rest or when performing activities and they are sometimes worse at night. If you are experiencing these symptoms, make an appointment to see your doctor.

Asthma is a very manageable condition. It is usually treated with both reliever and preventor inhalers, though some people are also prescribed tablets.

Asthma treatment

The most common treatment for asthma is inhalers:

  • Reliever inhaler – these are reactive inhalers that are used when symptoms occur and will relieve symptoms within five minutes. If you need to use this more than three times a week, speak to your doctor.
  • Preventor inhaler – these are used daily to reduce inflammation and sensitivity of airways. Preventor inhalers contain steroid medicine and if you are using your reliever inhaler too often, you’ll be prescribed a preventor inhaler.
  • Combination inhaler – these are prescribed when asthma isn’t fully controlled by a reliever inhaler or a preventor inhaler. These are used daily and provide long-lasting relief. It’s essential to use this daily to improve your asthma when you have been prescribed this kind of inhaler.

Other treatments include tablets, injections and, in rare cases, surgery. If you’re diagnosed with asthma, your doctor will discuss potential treatments for you.

Severe Asthma

Around four out of every 100 people with asthma are counted as having severe asthma. This is asthma that does not respond to treatment, and which is difficult to control.

Severe asthma is considered a disability under the Equality Act (2010), and is the most serious form of asthma. If you are regularly needing to use your reliever inhaler three or more times a week, or if you have had more than two asthma attacks in a year which required steroid treatment or hospitalisation, you may want to speak to your doctor about whether you have severe asthma.

To manage severe asthma, you will have to carefully avoid triggers wherever possible, and you may also be given regular steroids in inhaler and/or tablet form. You might need additional medications as well, such as “biologics” (monoclonal antibodies which help to reduce inflammation) or a long-acting muscarinic antagonist (LAMA – a medicine which helps to dilate or open your airways).

To find out more about severe asthma, you can explore Asthma + Lung UK’s pages.

Living well with an asthma diagnosis

Once diagnosed and treated, most people feel much better, but you may be looking for other ways to support your treatment. Make sure that you use your prescription as directed, eat healthily and stay hydrated.

Exercise can sometimes be a little difficult for asthma sufferers. Your doctor will advise you on suitable exercise for you.

Visit our Living with a Chest Condition section for more information about how to manage your condition at home, how to stay well and reduce your risk of developing further chest conditions.

This page was last updated on May 2, 2023 and is under regular review. If you feel anything is missing or incorrect, please contact to provide feedback.

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