Frequently asked questions

Here you can find answers to some of our frequently asked questions about asthma.

Common concerns

Common questions

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Common Concerns

Q. Can you die from an asthma attack?

A. Yes. Although most people who have an asthma attack get help and get well, the shocking and tragic fact is that asthma attacks kill three people each day. The UK has amongst the highest death rates from asthma in Europe.

Did you know that every 10 seconds, someone in the UK is having a potentially life-threatening asthma attack? If you don't get the right treatment for you, asthma symptoms are more likely to be serious and asthma attacks are more likely.

On a more positive note, it is estimated that two-thirds of asthma related deaths are preventable with better routine care. Taking your asthma medicines regularly as prescribed in the right way is the best way to prevent asthma symptoms and a potentially life-threatening asthma attack. Also, if you use a written asthma action plan you're four times less likely to end up in hospital due to your asthma.

Q. I have asthma and I'm pregnant. Will my baby have asthma too?

A. We don't know the exact cause of asthma, but we do know that asthma often runs in families. Your baby is more at risk of developing asthma or breathing problems if:

  • you smoke while you're pregnant or around your child when they're born and when they're growing up
  • both you and your partner have asthma.

If only one of you has asthma, the baby has a greater chance of developing asthma if it's the mother who has asthma rather than the father.

There's more information about managing your asthma during pregnancy here.

Q. Are steroids in asthma medicines safe?

A. Many children and most adults with asthma are prescribed medicine that contains steroids. Taking steroid medicines makes it less likely that you will experience symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, chest tightness and shortness of breath. It also means it's less likely that your body will react to asthma triggers, such as pollen or pollution.

Many preventer inhalers - the inhaler you take every day - contain a really low dose of steroids to help manage your symptoms. If you take it correctly and regularly as prescribed, it helps to reduce inflammation in your airways that makes them irritable and more likely to react to triggers. This reduces your risk of an asthma attack.

If your asthma symptoms get worse, or you have an asthma attack, your preventer inhaler may not be enough to manage the inflammation so your GP or asthma nurse may give you a short course of steroid tablets (called prednisolone). These contain a higher dose of steroids to reduce your risk of a potentially life-threatening asthma attack.

Some people worry about taking steroids, often because of the long list of potential side effects. What's reassuring to remember is that the steroids in a low-dose preventer inhaler are unlikely to cause side effects because the inhaled medicine goes straight down to your airways where its needed. Very little is absorbed into the rest of the body. Also, short, occasional courses of steroid tablets taken for no longer than three weeks are very unlikely to cause troublesome side effects.

If you're taking higher doses of steroids (eg. a higher dose in your daily preventer inhaler, steroid tablets for longer than three months, or three or four courses of steroid tablets in a year), your GP, asthma nurse or consultant will help you weigh up the benefits and risks. And if you do experience any side effects, more often than not there are ways to deal with them - ask your GP or asthma nurse for advice. Or you can call our Helpline on 0300 222 5800 (9am - 5pm; Mon - Fri) to speak to one of our friendly asthma nurse specialists.

Q. Do asthma medicines stunt growth?

A. There is a small link between inhaled steroids and reduced growth in children. If your child is taking inhaled steroids, your GP or asthma nurse will want to monitor their height and weight at least once a year. If you're worried, speak to your GP or asthma nurse about your concerns.

Remember, though, that if your child is taking a regular lower dose of steroids in a preventer inhaler to manage their symptoms, it can mean they need to take fewer courses of steroid tablets overall, plus their risk of a potentially life-threatening asthma attack is reduced. Also, poorly controlled asthma can itself affect growth. In other words, the benefits far outweigh the risks. If you’re worried about anything to do with your child’s asthma medicines, you can find some reassuring information here.

Q. Do asthma medicines cause osteoporosis?

A. The long-term use of steroids has been associated with a risk of reduced bone density in some people. At your annual asthma review, your GP or asthma nurse can talk to you about your individual risk and what simple things you can do to lower this risk. These include:

  • getting plenty of exercise
  • eating well, including lots of foods rich in calcium (e.g. leafy green vegetables, dried fruit, tofu, yoghurt) and vitamin D (e.g. eggs, milk, oily fish)
  • giving up smoking
  • avoiding too much alcohol.

You can get more information and advice from the National Osteoporosis Society.

Q. Do asthma medicines have side effects?

A. Like all prescription drugs, there is a risk of side effects when you take asthma medicines. What's reassuring is that most people who take them won't experience all of the side effects, or even any. And you'll only ever be prescribed a medicine if the benefits outweigh the risks. If you feel worried about anything or have concerns about your medicines, speak to your GP or asthma nurse.

Q. I have asthma. Is it safe to fast?

A. Fasting is willingly avoiding some or all food, drink, or both, for a period of time and is often carried out for religious reasons.

There is little to suggest that fasting causes problems if you have asthma. But if when you're fasting you choose not to take your medicines exactly as prescribed - for example, if you stop using your inhaler(s) because you believe that using an inhaler would break your fast or you use them at different times to the prescribed times, this can cause your symptoms to get worse. In fact, stopping your medicines can cause your asthma symptoms to return and increase your risk of a life-threatening asthma attack.

Speak to your GP or asthma nurse before you stop taking your medicines as they may be able to consider a suitable alternative, such as temporarily switching to a once-a-day dose of your preventer inhaler. 

Q. Do asthma attacks damage lungs?

A. If you have frequent asthma attacks, your airways can become scarred and narrower. This is sometimes called 'airway remodelling'. If this happens, it means that less air can move through your airways and your symptoms (and asthma attacks) may become worse and/or more frequent.

You are more likely to have frequent asthma attacks if you smoke, if you don't take your medicines regularly as prescribed and/or if you don't seek help as soon as you notice your symptoms getting worse.

The best way to prevent airway remodelling is to give up smoking if you smoke and to take your preventer inhaler and any other medicines you've been prescribed regularly. And if you notice your symptoms are getting worse, book an appointment to see your GP or asthma nurse as soon as possible so that you can review your treatment.

Common Questions

Q. How is asthma treated?

A. When you're first diagnosed with asthma, your GP or asthma nurse will prescribe treatment depending on your age and the severity of your symptoms. What's great for anybody with asthma is that there are lots of safe and effective medicines available these days. The aim of treatment is for you to stay symptom-free. If you take your medicines regularly, exactly as prescribed, the chances are that your condition won't stop you from getting on with your life.

Q. What triggers asthma attacks?

A. Everyone with asthma is different and has a different mix of triggers – things that set their asthma symptoms off. Lots of different things can trigger asthma symptoms and asthma attacks including colds and virusespets, pollen, exercise and house dust mites. Finding out which triggers set off your symptoms means you can work out ways to avoid and deal with them.

Q. What happens after an asthma attack?

A. After you've had an asthma attack, it's not uncommon for your body to take a while to get back to normal. You may feel more tired or stressed than usual, or you may find it difficult to drop off to sleep at night. It's also not unusual after an asthma attack for you to feel a range of different emotions - perhaps you feel frightened that you might have another attack, guilty for worrying your family and/or down that you have a chronic condition.

If you've been in hospital or to a walk-in centre because you had an asthma attack, you should have an asthma review with your GP or asthma nurse within two working days after you leave. If this appointment hasn't been booked for you, call your GP surgery to arrange it as soon as possible. This is a chance for you to talk to a healthcare professional about any physical or emotional concerns you have - or about anything at all that's worrying you. It's also a chance for your GP or asthma nurse to check how you're doing and take action if they think you're at risk of another attack.

It's very important to book and go to this appointment because one in six people who receive emergency treatment for an asthma attack need emergency treatment again within two weeks. Find out how you can cut your risk here.

If you had an asthma attack, but you didn't go to hospital or a walk-in centre, it's still important for you to book an appointment with a healthcare professional so they can see how you're doing and help you to find solutions to any problems you're having. You can also speak to one of our experienced asthma nurse specialists on our Helpline on 0300 222 5800 (Mon Fri; 9am to 5pm).

Q. What's the best way to avoid asthma attacks?

A. There are lots of things you can do to help reduce your risk of an asthma attack:

Q. Can you have an asthma attack if you've got mild asthma?

A. Yes. Although you're more likely to have an asthma attack if you've got moderate or severe asthma, you can still have a potentially life-threatening asthma attack if you've got mild asthma. That's why its important to take your asthma medicines exactly as prescribed even if you're not getting any symptoms, or you're getting very few and/or mild symptoms.

Q. What is severe asthma?

A. One in 20 people with asthma has severe asthma. They have symptoms that are much harder to control because they don't improve with the usual asthma medicines even when they're taken as prescribed. You can find out more about severe asthma here.

Q. What's the link between asthma, eczema, and hay fever?

A. Eczema is a condition that causes the skin to become itchy, red, dry and cracked and occurs more often in people who get allergies. Hay fever is an allergy to pollen, a tiny powder-like substance produced by certain types of trees, grasses and weeds, and causes symptoms such as a runny nose, sneezing and itching.

Along with allergic asthma, eczema and hay fever are known as 'atopic conditions'. If you're atopic, it means your body produces a certain type of antibody, called immunoglobulin E (IgE), in response to harmless allergens, such as pollen, moulds and dust mites. If you're atopic, you could have one, two or all three of the conditions. For example, 80 per cent of people with asthma also have hay fever. Plus if you have family members who are atopic, you're more likely to develop asthma. Speak to your GP or asthma nurse if you have any questions about any of these conditions.

Q. What is an asthma action plan and why do I need one? 

A. One of the best ways to look after your asthma is to make sure you have an up-to-date written asthma action plan. Using one means you’re four times less likely to have an asthma attack that needs emergency hospital treatment. This is because an asthma action plan contains all the information you need in one place to stay well with your asthma, including:

  • When and how to take your medicine to keep your asthma well managed
  • How to get on top of your asthma again if you haven’t been using your preventer inhaler as prescribed
  • The things that make your asthma worse (triggers)
  • When your next asthma review is due
  • The signs and symptoms that mean you need your reliever inhaler (usually blue)
  • The signs and symptoms that mean you need to see your GP or asthma nurse
  • What to do if you have an asthma attack (including when to call 999)

To get the best from your asthma action plan, download one now and make an appointment with your GP or asthma nurse so you can fill it in together. Keep it where you can find it easily – either downloaded on your phone or printed off - and share copies with others who might find it useful and comforting to know how they can help you, such as friends, work colleagues or your partner. 

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Q. Can I call Asthma UK for advice?

A. Our Helpline number is 0300 222 5800. You can speak, in confidence, to one of our friendly asthma nurse specialists Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm. You can also email your query to our asthma nurses by filling in the Helpline Contact Form, and they will get back to you within five working days. 

Q. English isn't my first language. Is there information about asthma available anywhere that's easy to understand?

A. We have put together some easy-to-understand information about asthma especially for people with learning disabilities or for people who don't speak English as a first language. It's easy to read and there are lots of pictures so the information is easier to understand. You might also find it easier to speak to one of our asthma nurse specialists on our Helpline on 0300 222 5800 (Mon Fri; 9am to 5pm).

Last reviewed May 2016