What is asthma?

Asthma affects the airways in your lungs and can cause symptoms like coughing, wheezing and breathlessness

What is asthma?

Respiratory Physiotherapist Sonia explains how asthma affects the airways with step-by-step whiteboard drawings.

Video: What is asthma?

Respiratory Physiotherapist Sonia explains how asthma affects the airways with step-by-step whiteboard drawings.
Transcript for 'What is asthma?'

0:01 Asthma is a long-term condition that affects the airways. 5.4 million people

0:06 have asthma in the UK. That's one in every 12 adults and one in every 11

0:11 children. As you breathe in through your nose, the air is warmed, filtered and

0:16 moistened. The air then travels down your windpipe, then into your airways. This is

0:23 a healthy airway. It's open and the muscles are relaxed. If you have asthma,

0:28 your airways will be more sensitive and will react when you come into contact

0:33 with the trigger, such as pollen. When your lungs react the muscles of the

0:38 airways become extremely tight. They become narrower and the inside of the

0:42 lining becomes swollen and inflamed. If you can imagine a hosepipe narrowing

0:47 down to a straw. Some people with asthma may also get sticky mucus or phlegm. This

0:53 can narrow the airway even more. All these changes in the airways makes it

0:57 very difficult for someone with asthma to breathe, and they experience asthma symptoms such as chest tightness, wheezing, coughing, or waking at night with a cough

Health advice > Understanding asthma

Find out how asthma affects the airways, what makes it worse, and if there’s a cure.

On this page:

What is asthma?
Why do people get asthma?
What triggers asthma symptoms?
How serious is asthma?
Can you die of an asthma attack?
Does asthma get worse over time?
Does asthma sometimes go away on its own?
Is there a cure for asthma?

What is asthma?

Asthma is a very common long-term lung condition. It affects the airways that carry air in and out of your lungs. In the UK, 5.4 million people have asthma. That's one in every 12 adults and one in every 11 children.

People with asthma often have sensitive, inflamed airways. They can get symptoms like coughing, wheezing, feeling breathless or a tight chest.

Asthma symptoms can come and go. Sometimes people may not have symptoms for weeks or months at a time.

Asthma needs to be treated every day, even if you feel well, to lower the risk of symptoms and asthma attacks.

Find out more about the symptoms of asthma.

Why do people get asthma?

Asthma often starts in childhood, but adults can develop asthma too. Some things make asthma more likely, such as a history of allergies.

Find out more about the causes of asthma.

What triggers asthma symptoms?

There are lots of things that can make asthma worse, but not everyone will be affected by the same things. Things that set off your asthma symptoms are called triggers.

Finding out what sets off your symptoms - whether it's colds and viruses, pets, pollen, pollution, house dust mites, or stress - means you can work out ways to avoid your triggers if possible.

There are certain stages in your life that might affect your asthma too. For example, some women find that hormonal changes, at puberty, pregnancy, or menopause can affect their asthma.

The best way to cope with your asthma triggers is to always take your preventer medicine as prescribed, even when you feel well. And if you notice symptoms getting worse always see your GP or asthma nurse.

How serious is asthma?

How serious asthma is varies from person to person. There are different types of asthma too.

Someone with severe asthma (which affects around 5% of all people with asthma) can have symptoms most of the time and find them very hard to control.

But most people with asthma can manage it well by using a preventer inhaler every day, and a reliever inhaler if their symptoms flare up.

For every type of asthma though, there’s the risk of an asthma attack. Asthma attacks can be life-threatening, so it’s important to take action if you notice any signs that your asthma is getting worse.

Find out more about asthma attacks.

Can you die of an asthma attack?

Tragically, four people die every day because of asthma attacks, and a major study into asthma deaths (the National Review of Asthma Deaths 2014) which looked at patient data from hospitals and GP practices, found that two-thirds of asthma deaths are preventable.

Although some asthma attacks can be treated at home, with a reliever inhaler, others need treatment in hospital.

The best way to cut the risk of asthma attacks is to take your asthma medicines as prescribed, even if you feel well.

Using a written asthma action plan makes it easier to manage your symptoms so you’re less likely to end up in hospital with an asthma attack.

Does asthma get worse over time?

Having frequent asthma attacks can make asthma worse over time. Asthma attacks can cause scarring in your airways which makes them narrower. This is sometimes called ‘airway remodelling’.

If your airways are scarred and narrow, you’re more likely to have worse symptoms more often.

The best way to stop your asthma getting worse over time is to stick to a good routine of taking your preventer medicines as prescribed.

If you smoke, get support to help you quit. Giving up smoking will cut your risk of frequent asthma attacks and your asthma getting worse.

If you notice your symptoms are getting worse see your GP or asthma nurse as soon as possible so they can review your treatment.

Does asthma sometimes go away on its own?

Asthma is a lifelong condition. Although most people who have asthma will always have asthma, most people can be symptom-free with a good treatment and self-management plan.

If you’ve been diagnosed with asthma as a child, your asthma might improve or disappear completely as you get older, particularly if the asthma was mild.

Even though some children do ‘grow out of’ their asthma symptoms, symptoms might come back later in life. They might be set off by something at work, or by pollution, or by a life change like the menopause.

Is there a cure for asthma?

There’s no cure for asthma, but there are tried and tested asthma medicines to prevent symptoms.

This means that most people with asthma, if they’re sticking to their prescribed medicines, can get on with their lives without asthma symptoms getting in the way.


You can get advice and support about your asthma by calling a respiratory nurse specialist on our Helpline, 0300 222 5800 (9am-5pm; Monday-Friday). Or you can WhatsApp them on 07378 606 728.


Last reviewed November 2021

Next review due November 2024

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