Diagnosing asthma in adults

If you think you have asthma, make an appointment with your GP as soon as possible to get the treatment you need

Around 1 in 12 adults in the UK is being treated for asthma. People often think of asthma as something you get when you're a child. But it's not unusual to develop asthma as an adult. In fact asthma can develop at any age.

It's important to get a confirmed diagnosis. If you have asthma and it’s not diagnosed or looked after properly, it can make it even harder for your lungs to work well. And over time symptoms like breathlessness, coughing and tightness in the chest will be worse. Under-treated asthma may be life threatening.

The good news is there are lots of safe and effective medicines available. And if you take them as prescribed, asthma doesn't need to stop you doing anything you want to do. 

What asthma symptoms should I look for?

Common symptoms of asthma include:

  • coughing
  • wheezing
  • tightness in the chest
  • feeling short of breath.

Not everyone with asthma will get all of the symptoms. Some people say they cough, but don't wheeze. Some people only have symptoms now and then. Others have symptoms a lot of the time, particularly the small percentage (about five per cent) of people with 'severe asthma'.

If you’ve noticed asthma-like symptoms, don’t ignore them. Make an appointment with your GP.  Some GP practices have an asthma nurse, but the practice nurse might be able to help with asthma too.

The quicker you get diagnosed, the quicker you can get the right medicines to help deal with your symptoms.

What's triggering my asthma symptoms?

A trigger is anything that sets off your asthma symptoms, such as colds and flu, cigarette smoke, pollution, and cold air.

There are many different asthma triggers. You may just have one or two things that trigger your symptoms, or several. Sometimes it’s difficult to work out what your triggers are.

In adults, asthma symptoms are less likely to be triggered by allergies, such as house dust mites, pets and pollen, and more likely to be triggered by hormonal changes, or work.  

Occupational asthma or work-related asthma can develop very quickly or take weeks, months or years to develop.

Avoiding your individual triggers, when it’s possible, can help reduce the risk of an asthma attack.

How is asthma diagnosed?

Asthma can be complex and take time to diagnose. This is because everyone’s asthma is different. 

Getting a diagnosis for a child, for instance, is different from getting a diagnosis for an adult.

Also, the reasons for breathlessness can vary and in adults, especially older adults, it can be more difficult to tell the difference between asthma and other conditions that cause similar symptoms, such as heart disease or pneumonia.

The best way to confirm or rule out asthma is with asthma tests. But your GP will also want to know about your symptoms, when you get them, and if you've noticed what triggers them.

At your appointment the GP may:

  • ask about family history, workplace environment and lifestyle
  • do a breathing test (lung function test) which measures how your lungs are working
  • ask you to keep peak flow recordings or a symptom calendar
  • recommend other tests  to help confirm a diagnosis – your GP or asthma nurse will decide which tests are suitable for you.

Unless you're unwell with symptoms, your GP may wait for test results before prescribing any treatments. This is to make sure you get the right medicines for you and that you're not taking medicines unnecessarily. 

But if you are having symptoms, the GP may prescribe you asthma medicines before a diagnosis is confirmed to help you stay well. They will still need to arrange tests to confirm asthma at a later date.  

What's a 'trial of treatment'?

The best way to confirm or rule out asthma is with asthma tests. But if you’re having symptoms your GP may decide to give you one or more asthma medicines to see if they help. This is known as a ‘trial of treatment’.

You may be asked to do breathing tests before and after the trial so it's clearer whether or not the asthma medicines made a difference.

If you respond well to the trial of treatment (if your symptoms start to get better), it's a good indication you could have asthma.

You may be asked to reduce or stop the medicines to see if your symptoms come back. 

If the results show it's unlikely you have asthma, your GP may need to investigate other possible causes for your symptoms. 

If at any point during the trial of treatment your symptoms get worse, contact your GP or asthma nurse immediately.

 

What happens after being diagnosed with asthma?

Asthma nurse Debby offers advice on what to expect after getting a diagnosis of asthma, how to look after yourself and how to get support

Video: What happens after being diagnosed with asthma?

Asthma nurse Debby offers advice on what to expect after getting a diagnosis of asthma, how to look after yourself and how to get support
Transcript of 'What happens after being diagnosed with asthma?'

0:00 It can be really scary to be told you have asthma and it's natural to worry about how it might affect your life. The

0:08 good news is that there's lots of support out there to help you manage the condition and to help you to stay well.

0:15 You may wonder if your asthma can be cured. Well, even though we don't have a cure for asthma at the moment, there's so much we can do with the right medicines,

0:25 the right treatments, the right advice and support to help you stay well, so that the asthma won't affect your life,

0:31 whether it be work or your play. You might find that when you're just diagnosed with asthma it takes a little

0:38 bit of time to get your medicines just right so that you are living without symptoms every day. Be patient, hang on in there.

0:47 The most important thing is to develop a really good relationship with your doctor or nurse. With them you can draw up an asthma action plan, which you can

0:56 download from our website. That'll really help you to manage your asthma well, and we know that you're four times less likely to need to go to hospital if

1:04 you've got one of these. So, if you have just been diagnosed with asthma, try and stay positive. There's so much you can do to stay well. You can visit our website,

1:14 or phone one of our friendly asthma nurse specialists, or even join a forum. Remember that we're here to help.

What happens after an asthma diagnosis?

If you’re diagnosed with asthma, the good news is there are lots of effective medicines available to help manage your symptoms.

One of the first things to do once you have an asthma diagnosis is download a written asthma action plan. You're four times less likely to need to go to hospital with asthma if you have one. 

An asthma action plan is designed to help you manage your asthma. You fill it in with your GP or asthma nurse.

Once you've got your own personalised written asthma action plan, you can take it to each appointment so it’s always up-to-date. And between appointments you can use it to remind you of the best way to look after your asthma.

When you’re first diagnosed, you may need to see your GP or asthma nurse a few times to check how you’re feeling and monitor your treatment. After that, once you feel as though you’re on top of your symptoms and you’re in a good routine with your medicines, it’s important to book an asthma review at least once a year – even if your symptoms are well managed and you’re feeling well.

This is so your GP or asthma nurse can check your medicines in case the doses need to be changed. It’s also a chance to talk about your triggers, lifestyle and any other factors that may affect your asthma, such as hay fever.

Severe asthma

If your GP or asthma nurse thinks you may have severe asthma (which affects only around five per cent of people with asthma), the usual asthma medicines may not work well for you. If this is the case you may need to be referred to a respiratory specialist for extra support and more specialist tests.  

If it turns out you do have severe asthma, you'll work closely with your team of health professionals to find the best combination of treatments for you.

Don't hesitate to ask for help

If you’re worried about anything to do with your diagnosis, speak to your GP, asthma nurse or pharmacist.

You can also call our Helpline on 0300 222 5800 (9am – 5pm; Mon - Fri) and ask our asthma nurse specialists anything about your symptoms or treatment, your lifestyle or the way you’re managing your asthma.

Read up on asthma

We produce award-winning materials to help people with asthma understand and manage their condition more effectively. We've also got loads of friendly advice on living with asthma.

Our resources have been co-created with people with asthma, developed using the most trusted evidence, and evaluated by healthcare professionals.

The more you know about your asthma, the better you’ll be able to work with your GP or asthma nurse to manage it well.

Last updated March 2018

Next review due November 2019