Asthma is a chronic lung disease.

According to the Allergy Society of South Africa, asthma is one of the most common respiratory complaints in the world today, affecting one in 10 children and one in 20 adults. Asthma is the most common chronic disease in children, according to the World Health Organisation.

It isn’t clear why some people develop asthma and others don’t although it is believed to be due to a combination of environmental and inherited factors. What is clear is that it results in inflammation of the small tubes, or bronchi, carrying air in and out of the lungs. If you have asthma, the bronchi will be inflamed and more sensitive than normal.

Asthma may be part of an allergic complex including hay fever and eczema.

Asthma’s causes or triggers include the following but differ from person from person:

  • It can be triggered by inhaling allergens (such as dust, pollen, and animal hair and dead skin cells) or chemicals
  • Certain foods (such as nuts and preservatives)
  • Pollution
  • Exercise
  • A viral cold or flu
  • Emotions
  • Certain drugs such as aspirin and other anti-inflammatory tablets
  • It is more likely to develop it if you have a family history of the condition

What are its symptoms?

Asthma symptoms vary between sufferers, and while they can be controlled well most of the time, some people may have more persistent problems.

An asthma attack occurs when there is a sudden worsening of asthma symptoms. Knowing the signs mean you can seek quick treatment and prevent an emergency.

These include:

  • Persistent cough (occurring more frequently at night and with activity, can be wet or dry)
  • Wheezing
  • Tightness of the chest, difficulty breathing
  • Shortness of breath, especially after exercise
  • Chest pain
  • Feelings of anxiety or panic
  • Sweating
  • Blue lips or fingernails

How is it diagnosed?

Asthma is complex and can take time to diagnose. There is no definitive test.

If you have any of symptoms or a history of asthma, consult your doctor. He/she will ask you about your medical and family history and conduct a physical examination. Note all your asthma triggers and symptoms, as these can help your doctor make an accurate diagnosis.

There are tests your doctor may use to make an asthma diagnosis. These include:

  • Lung function tests, also known as pulmonary function tests
  • Allergy tests
  • Blood tests
  • Chest and sinus X-rays

What are your treatment options?

With the right treatment, most asthmatics will lead completely normal lives, according to Allergy SA.

The aim of treatment should be to make the lungs and breathing tubes as normal as possible so that there are minimal symptoms. Asthma sufferers should try to avoid the things that trigger their asthma and, most importantly, take regular medication.

Your doctor will prescribe the appropriate treatment for you. There are two main types of anti-asthma medication: preventer and reliever medicine (usually taken using an inhaler).

You should also have a personal asthma action plan agreed with your doctor or nurse.

Can it be prevented?

There is nothing you can do to prevent getting asthma, but you can work towards preventing attacks and living with your condition.

Guidelines include:

  • Follow an action plan: With your doctor, write a detailed plan for taking medication and managing an attack. Then follow it.
  • Get vaccinated for flu and pneumonia. This can prevent triggers and flare-ups.
  • Identify and avoid your asthma triggers.
  • Monitor your breathing.
  • Regularly measure and record your peak airflow. When your peak-flow measurements decrease (determined by a peak flow meter, this monitors the lung capacity of people with asthma) and alert you to an oncoming attack, take your medication and immediately stop any activity that may have triggered the attack.
  • Identify and treat attacks early.
  • Take your medication as prescribed even if your asthma seems to be improving. Don’t change anything without first talking to your doctor.
  • Don’t rely on a quick-relief inhaler. This means your asthma isn’t under control.

What to do now
To make an appointment for a flu vaccination or for peak flow measurement at a Clicks Clinic, call 0860 254 257 or visit Clicks Clinics online.

For more info
The Allergy Society of South Africa

The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by physician Dr Thomas Blake in May 2015