Asthma is one of the most common chronic conditions in the UK, affecting around five million people. The technical definition of asthma is a reversible airways disease which causes difficulty breathing. The word reversible is important and means that treatment can usually alleviate the symptoms and this separates it from other lung problems like Emphysema or Chronic Bronchitis (which are now called COPD or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease).
Asthma is a problem for many people because even mild symptoms can get in the way of exercise and it may mean carrying an inhaler around at all times. When more serious, asthma can be life threatening and needs to be monitored carefully. Although asthma is not curable it is "reversible" and therefore is almost always controllable given the right treatment. It is quite possible for a person with asthma to lead a completely normal life with the right combination of treatment.
For reasons that are not fully understood, asthma is on the increase and, in fact, the number of asthmatics has risen at least five fold in the last 25 years in the UK. Part of this increase may be due to doctors diagnosing it more often when sometimes in the past it was misdiagnosed. The increase is also thought to be related to increased levels of air pollution but this has not yet been categorically proven. The causes of asthma are not fully understood, although it seems both a genetic predisposition and environmental factors are involved.
What we do know is that during an asthma attack, the airways in the lungs become constricted, inflamed and there is an excess of mucus. This makes it much more difficult for the asthmatic to breath deeply in or out, causing a shortness of breath and wheezing. Asthmatic episodes can be triggered by many different factors including allergies (to fur, pollen etc.), exercise, viral chest infections, the inhalation of cold air and stress.
Treatment of asthma has advanced a lot over recent years. People living with asthma use either one, or a combination of inhalers (what some asthmatics call "puffers") which deliver a carefully measured dose of medication in the form of a spray or powder which is inhaled into the lungs. Anti-asthma drugs can be divided into "relievers" which are used just before or during an attack, and "preventers" which are used on a daily basis and help to suppress inflation and reduce swelling in the lining of the airways.
It's important to remember that asthma is a common condition that can be mild or severe but in most cases can be controlled with medication, meaning that the vast majority of asthmatics can lead a normal life.