Could you have asthma and not know it?
It is now the UK's most common long-term medical complaint, but are you aware of all the signs and symptoms? Abi Jackson reports
Chances are, everybody knows somebody with asthma, perhaps a family member or close friend - it's a condition that everybody's heard of.
Currently, 5.4 million people in the UK are receiving treatment for asthma, which is caused by inflammation of the bronchi (small tubes that carry air in and out of the lungs), and anybody can develop it, though it does tend to be more common in people with a family history and/or other allergies.
Despite this, asthma is still surrounded by a fair amount of mystery and misunderstanding.
While it's perfectly possible to live a full and active life with asthma, misunderstanding might mean some people are not even aware they have the condition, or may not be receiving the best treatment for them.
Thankfully, fatal asthma attacks are rare and largely avoidable, and not everybody with asthma experiences major attacks. But, as the death of 27-year-old former Apprentice star Stuart Baggs highlighted earlier this summer, it's important to be aware that they do happen.
Concerned that you could have asthma? See your doctor - as if you do have asthma, a proper diagnosis is crucial.
A COMPLEX CONDITION
Asthma varies from person to person.
It isn't a one size fits all condition. "The most important and interesting thing about asthma is that it varies; minute to minute, day to day, month to month and year to year, so it can be quite difficult for people to spot whether something is going wrong, or it's just a normal fluctuation," says Dr Samantha Walker from Asthma UK.
Asthma symptoms are usually brought on - or made worse - by "triggers". Common triggers include being exposed to allergens (like pollen, animal hair, house dust mites) and chemicals (like aerosols), as well as exercise, changes in temperature, cigarette smoke, and emotional triggers like stress.
Symptoms may also be worse at night or first thing in the morning. "If you think of asthma as something where your airways are very twitchy, then every time you encounter something that's going to irritate them, you'll experience symptoms," explains Walker.
SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS
Wheezing doesn't always indicate asthma, but it's usually a common feature. A high-pitched rattle or whistling sound when breathing may be a sign. Walker notes, however, that wheezing can be common and normal in the under-fives. Also, not everybody with asthma wheezes.
A persistent cough, when there seems to be no other cause - for example, you don't have a cold - and which gets worse around triggers, could be a sign of asthma.
Walker says: "It's not like when somebody's got a cold, where they bring up mucus and the cough sounds bubbly. It's a drier cough, like your breath catching. So when people take a breath in, it's like an interruption."
Shortness of breath is often the symptom that confuses people most, as breathlessness can have many causes. Everybody gets out of breath to some degree during strenuous exercise, for instance, and people who are unfit will experience this more easily.
However, Walker notes that we have a tendency to put increased breathlessness down to getting older when, in fact, it could be a sign of asthma. "If you're 30 or 40 and you think, 'Gosh I'm getting old, I can't do this exercise' - that's not age, you're too young," she says.
Another common symptom is a feeling of tightness around the chest. Again, this may be due to a number of causes, but it's not a symptom that should ever be ignored - particularly if it occurs alongside breathlessness. Some people describe it as feeling as though there's a tight band around their chest, preventing them from fully opening and filling their lungs.
For further information, visit www.asthma.org.uk or call the Asthma UK helpline on 0300 222 5800. You can also follow the charity on Twitter (@asthmauk) and Facebook for helpful alerts about avoiding asthma triggers.
Asthma UK advises that everybody with asthma has a written instruction plan with a step-by-step outline of what should be done in the event of an asthma attack or emergency.
"A written instruction plan makes you four times less likely to end up in hospital because of your asthma," says Walker. "Even if you've got mild asthma, it should be standard that everybody has one."
Text ASTHMA to 70300 to donate £3 to Asthma UK and help fund the fight against asthma