Asthma is a long-term condition causing inflammation of the airways. Most people have a mild form, and symptoms are kept at bay through regular medication to dampen down inflammation. Occasionally people get flare-ups, where symptoms come back, and this may require stronger treatment. Once you are on the right treatment for you, and you have an asthma plan that tells you when to increase or decrease doses, most people go on to lead a normal life – able to exercise, work and enjoy family life.
You will be prescribed two inhalers. The first is a blue inhaler, salbutamol. This is called a reliever, as it temporarily widens your airways to reduce the feeling of chest tightness and breathlessness. Its effect lasts for a couple of hours. You can take two puffs of this up to four times a day – it can be more effective if taken via a spacer. Your doctor, practice nurse or pharmacist can show you how. The second inhaler is known as a preventer, as it dampens down inflammation in the long-term, altering the course of your asthma. This reduces daily symptoms, flare-ups and reliance on your reliever inhaler. The preventer inhaler can come in a multitude of colours and ways to activate it, according to your preference and how severe your asthma is. These inhalers should be on your repeat list, so you can request them to be prescribed again before you run out.
Your doctor will arrange reviews every few weeks after diagnosis until you are on the right treatment and you feel more comfortable. You should expect no symptoms overnight, be able to manage your usual daily activities and job, and you should be needing your reliever inhaler less than three times per week. Once stabilised, you will be given a written asthma plan, so you are aware of symptoms of a flare-up and can increase your treatment, or increasing if you anticipate being in an environment that worsens your asthma (you are somewhere dusty, with pets, it’s winter or you have a chest infection). You should see your doctor urgently if symptoms are severe or persist despite increasing treatment according to your asthma plan. You should look out for four key symptoms: chest tightness, feeling short of breath, a cough or a wheeze (a high-pitched sound when you breathe out). With well-controlled asthma, you will be invited for a review at least once a year by your doctor or practice nurse, and they will assess symptoms and peak flow readings.
The short answer is yes! The aim of asthma treatment is to allow you to lead as normal and fulfilled a life as possible. Exercise keeps us all healthy, but it’s a great way of keeping your lung tissue elastic and blood and oxygen flowing to nourish the lungs. If exercise is a trigger, you may need to take salbutamol pre-emptively prior to your session, and afterwards if symptoms occur. Your doctor may also suggest increasing the dose of your preventer inhaler. Exercise may not be the trigger, but it’s where you’re exercising, so cold air, pollen or pollution if outdoors, or a dusty environment if indoors. Sex is also a form of exercise, increasing your breathing and heart rate, and there’s no reason asthma should get in the way of this if it’s well-controlled – just apply the same rules of having your salbutamol inhaler nearby and seeing your doctor if you are over-relying on your inhaler or symptoms persist.
Knowledge is everything, so the more you know about your condition and your specific triggers, the better. The Asthma UK charity is a good source of information. Ensuring you stick to your asthma plan and continue daily inhalers as advised, is also going to only benefit you. In time, you will learn to step up and step down medication according to your symptoms and anticipating triggers. We all know that smoking has no positive health benefits, but it can be detrimental for asthma sufferers – ask your doctor about stop smoking services, and encourage anyone in your household to kick the habit. Asthma often goes alongside hay fever – try over-the-counter remedies for your hay fever, and see your doctor if these aren’t strong enough. Pollen can trigger asthma in itself, but having hay fever well-controlled will help keep your asthma under control.