Asthma and other health conditions

From nasal polyps to sleep apnoea, we look at some of the health conditions you’re more likely to get if you have asthma, and how to manage any extra symptoms

Not everyone will develop other conditions alongside their asthma. And some are more common than others.

For example, lots of people get hay fever with their asthma, but not as many get COPD or bronchiectasis.

“Whatever health issue you’ve got alongside your asthma, getting the right treatment and support for it is likely to benefit your asthma as well,” says asthma nurse specialist Kathy. “Tell your GP  about any medicines you're taking for different conditions too, so they can make sure they're safe to use alongside your asthma medicines.”

Allergies

If you’ve got asthma you can often have other allergic conditions too, like hay fever, food allergies or eczema. Sometimes you can have one or more of these allergies at the same time. The risk of your child developing asthma, and/or hay fever, is higher if they have eczema.

What are the risks to your asthma?

Allergies can make your asthma symptoms worse and increase your risk of an asthma attack.

What you can do about it

“If you or your child have allergies, your GP can help pinpoint what they are,” says Kathy, asthma nurse specialist. “Some GPs may also offer you tests. You can talk about treatments like antihistamines too, and how to avoid your triggers where you can.” 

Nasal polyps

People with asthma are more likely to get nasal polyps than people without asthma.

Nasal polyps are small growths in the nose. They’re not painful, but they can mean your nose is always blocked, or runny. It can sometimes feel like you have a cold that doesn’t go away. Or you may need to swallow all the time (this may be caused by postnasal drip).  

Nasal polyps are often caused by sinusitis that keeps coming back. This is where the passages in the nose are inflamed or infected. People with sinusitis and nasal polyps often have asthma too.

What are the risks to your asthma?

If you have asthma and nasal polyps it can sometimes mean you have asthma that’s more difficult to treat.

When your nose is blocked or runny, it can affect your breathing, sleeping, and can irritate your airways. This can make them more inflamed and sensitive to triggers.

You might need more asthma medicines to control your asthma symptoms.

What you can do about it

“Treating symptoms in the nose can also help your asthma,” says asthma nurse specialist Kathy. “Your GP can look inside your nose and suggest a nasal spray or drops. Some research suggests removal of nasal polyps can lead to improvement in asthma.”

Obstructive sleep apnoea

Studies suggest that if you have asthma you’re more likely to get obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA), especially if you’re overweight or have asthma that’s difficult to control.  

Sleep apnoea affects your breathing patterns when you’re sleeping. Often you don’t know you’ve got it until someone tells you you’re snoring (people with sleep apnoea often snore) or gasping awake in the night.

Another sign is that you’re very tired during the day.

What are the risks to your asthma?

Studies suggest that obstructive sleep apnoea is linked to worse asthma symptoms so it’s important to treat it.

What can you do about it?

“Treating your obstructive sleep apnoea can help your asthma too,” says Kathy, asthma nurse specialist.

“Keep an eye on your weight and avoid alcohol, smoking and sleeping tablets – which all make sleep apnoea worse. Try sleeping on your side or ask your doctor about treatments to help keep your airway open while you’re sleeping.”    

Acid reflux or heartburn

You’re more likely to get heartburn or acid reflux if you have asthma, especially if your asthma is severe or difficult to control. This is where acid from the stomach leaks out of the stomach up into the oesophagus (the long tube of muscle that runs from the mouth to the stomach).

You might get a burning feeling in your chest after eating, a bad taste in the mouth, and find it hard to swallow.

If you keep getting heartburn and acid reflux it’s known as gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD).

GORD and sleep apnoea are linked too, so you may have both at the same time.

What are the risks to your asthma?

If you have asthma and GORD, you need to keep a closer eye on your asthma symptoms. They could get worse because of stomach acid irritating your airways.

The things that make heartburn worse – being overweight, drinking alcohol, smoking, and stress – are all common asthma triggers too.

What can you do about it?

“Make sure you tell your GP or asthma nurse about any acid reflux symptoms so you can get the support you need to keep both it and your asthma under control,” says asthma nurse specialist Kathy.

“Your GP can prescribe medicines to stop your stomach producing acid and talk to you about your diet and eating habits. You can also ask about help with losing weight or giving up smoking.

“Although it’s not yet clear whether treating acid reflux actually improves asthma symptoms, there is some evidence to say it might improve them for some people.” 

Vocal cord dysfunction (Inducible Laryngeal Obstruction)

Vocal cord dysfunction, which is now called Inducible Laryngeal Obstruction (ILO) is where the vocal cords (or voice box) don’t open properly, making it hard to breathe. ILO and asthma often go together.

You might notice you feel breathless, you’re wheezing, or that your chest feels tight. You might also notice your throat feels tight, your voice is hoarse, or your breathing sounds high pitched.

ILO is usually diagnosed using a thin tube with a tiny camera on the end to look at the back of your nose, throat and voice box.

ILO can be linked to having acid reflux too.

What are the risks to your asthma?

ILO can make your asthma symptoms worse. And when your airways tighten due to an asthma trigger this may also trigger your ILO.

ILO can also be confused with asthma because some of the symptoms and triggers (like exercise, and stress for example) are similar. So, it can be hard to know if any symptoms you’re getting are because of your asthma or because of your ILO.

This can sometimes make it hard for doctors to give a clear asthma diagnosis. It also means there’s a risk of being wrongly told you have asthma.  

What can you do about it?

“There are some effective treatments to manage ILO, such as speech therapy to relax your throat muscles, relaxation techniques and breathing exercises,” says asthma nurse specialist Kathy.  

“And it’s also a good idea to talk about your ILO, alongside your asthma, at your asthma review, so you can be clear whether your symptoms are down to your asthma or not.”

COPD and Asthma-COPD overlap syndrome  

If you have lots of asthma attacks because your asthma isn’t well managed, you’re more at risk of developing COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).

COPD is a condition where inflammation in the airways causes permanent narrowing of the airways. It makes it harder to breathe in and out. It usually affects older age groups over 40 years old.

Some of the common symptoms are wheezing, breathlessness, cough, and producing more mucus or phlegm than usual.

Smoking or long-term exposure to air pollution, fumes and dust from the environment or your workplace are all risk factors for COPD.

Asthma-COPD overlap syndrome is where you show signs of both asthma and COPD.

What are the risks to your asthma?

You’re more likely to have asthma symptoms and asthma attacks if you have asthma-COPD overlap syndrome.

What can you do about it?

“If you have, or think you have, asthma-COPD overlap syndrome, your GP can help you get the right diagnosis and treatment,” says Kathy.

“Managing your asthma well and not smoking are key to lowering your risk of COPD – and cutting your risk of an asthma attack. If you have severe asthma your asthma specialist can talk you through any ways you can lower your risk of developing COPD.”

Bronchiectasis

People who have had asthma for many years, especially asthma that was either severe or difficult to manage, can sometimes go on to develop bronchiectasis. This is where your airways are scarred and inflamed and produce a lot of mucus which builds up and can become infected.

What are the risks to your asthma?

If your airways get infected it can mean your asthma is harder to manage, because your airways get more and more inflamed.

Studies show that people with asthma and bronchiectasis are more likely to have asthma attacks and need hospital care than those with just asthma.

What can you do about it?

“Your doctor may be able to refer you to a physiotherapist for exercises and breathing techniques to help clear the mucus from the lungs,” says asthma nurse Kathy.

“You can also help your bronchiectasis, and your asthma, by quitting smoking, and making sure you get your flu vaccine every year. Managing your asthma well from the word go can lower your risk.”

Other conditions linked to asthma

  • People with long-term conditions like asthma, especially if they have severe asthma, are more likely to experience mental health conditions like depression and anxiety.
  • Being very overweight puts you at risk of more asthma symptoms, and you’re more likely to need your reliever inhaler more often. In older people, being obese may be a factor in why they got asthma in the first place. Find out more about the benefits of losing weight.
  • Diabetes 2, osteoporosis, and adrenal insufficiency, are associated with asthma because of side effects from long-term high doses of steroids.
  • Evidence suggests that people with late onset asthma, which is usually harder to control, are slightly more at risk of heart disease and stroke. You can help yourself stay well with regular exercise, a healthy diet, and losing weight if you need to. 

Need more support and advice?

We know that living with asthma and any other long-term condition can sometimes be hard work.

If you have any questions about your asthma and how it relates to other health conditions, including any other conditions linked to side effects from your asthma medicines, you can call our Helpline on 0300 222 5800 to talk to our asthma nurse specialists (Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm).

You can also message them on WhatsApp on 07378 606 728.

 

Last updated August 2019

Next review due August 2021