What are the best treatment options for asthma?
Asthma is a very common respiratory condition that affects around 5.4 million people in the UK. It targets the airways, making them inflamed and sensitive, causing coughing, wheezing, breathlessness and a tight feeling in the chest.
It’s possible to manage your asthma symptoms and live a normal life. Some people only need their asthma treatment before exercise, whereas others experience more persistent symptoms. Occasionally, these symptoms can be severe, causing an asthma attack.
There are multiple treatment options for those with asthma, from inhalers to tablets. In this guide we’ll discuss all of the treatment options for asthma so you can decide which is the best one for you.
What is asthma?
Asthma is a respiratory condition that causes some breathing difficulties. It can affect people of all ages, but it’s often diagnosed in childhood. Asthma is a life-long condition that currently has no cure, however, there are treatments available to help you to keep the symptoms under control.
If you have asthma, you may experience the following symptoms:
- A tight chest, like a band is tightening around it
These symptoms can vary from season to season, or during the course of the day. Your asthma may be triggered by certain things, such as dust and pollen.
How is asthma diagnosed?
To diagnose asthma, your GP may ask about your symptoms, when they happen and how often, if anything triggers them, or if you have conditions like eczema or allergies, or any family history of them. Additionally, they may suggest some tests to confirm if you have asthma. This will range from:
- A feNO test, where you breathe into a machine that measures how much nitric oxide is in your breath, a sign of inflammation in your lungs
- A spirometry test, where you blow into a machine to measure how quickly you can breathe out and how much air your lungs can hold
- A peak flow test, where you blow into a handheld device that measures how fast you can breathe out. You may be asked to repeat this test several times over a few weeks to see if the results change over time
If you’ve been diagnosed with asthma, you may be asked to have a chest x-ray or an allergen test to see if your asthma symptoms are triggered by an allergy.
The main treatment for asthma is an inhaler, or oral medication if your symptoms don’t improve through the use of your inhaler. You may need to use more than one type of inhaler depending on the severity of your asthma.
If you have asthma, you will need a reliever inhaler to relieve your symptoms as and when they happen. Reliever inhalers are fast-acting to relax the muscles in your airways so you can breathe better and easily. These types of inhalers are usually blue.
You should keep your reliever inhaler with you at all times, not only to ease your symptoms when they present themselves, but if you have an asthma attack, your reliever inhaler can be a life saver.
If you’re using your reliever inhaler more than three times per week, it’s a sign that your asthma is not well controlled. You should speak to your GP if this is the case.
If you rely on your reliever inhaler, your GP may suggest a preventer inhaler, too. As the name implies, these inhalers prevent your asthma symptoms from occurring, and work by reducing the inflammation and sensitivity in your airways. Preventer inhalers come in many different colours, but most of them are brown.
You should take your preventer inhaler every day, as prescribed, even if your asthma is not bothering you. Using your preventer inhaler can build up the protection in your airways. It’s important to note that preventer inhalers are not effective against asthma attacks, so you should always keep your reliever inhaler with you at all times.
This type of inhaler contains steroid medicine, but it isn’t the same as the steroids bodybuilders use. The steroids used in inhalers are called corticosteroids, a copy of the steroids your body produces naturally. You should speak to your GP if you’re still experiencing symptoms while using your preventer inhaler.
Combination inhalers contain two different types of medicine, a corticosteroid preventer and a long-acting bronchodilator. Combination inhalers work by keeping the inflammation down in your airways, in addition to relieving asthma symptoms such as breathlessness and a tight chest.
It’s important that you take your combination inhaler every day, even if you're feeling okay. You should still keep your blue reliever inhaler with you at all times in case you experience asthamatic symptoms or an asthma attack.
Many combination inhalers will not provide you with quick relief, despite it containing a bronchodilator, a medicine that opens the airways. The bronchodilator used in combination inhalers is a long-acting type.
If your inhaler alone is not helping to control your asthma symptoms, you may need to take tablets. The most common type of tablets used for asthma are leukotriene receptor antagonists (LTRAs) and theophylline. These should be taken daily to prevent your symptoms from occurring.
If other treatments haven’t worked for your asthma, your GP may recommend steroid tablets. They can be taken just when you have an asthma attack, or every day as a long-term treatment to prevent your symptoms. However, this is typically only needed if your asthma is very severe.
Frequent or long-term use of steroids can sometimes cause side effects, but you will be closely monitored while taking steroid medication to check for any problems.
How to use your inhaler
Always use your inhaler as instructed by your GP or Chemist4U pharmacist. If you find that your inhaler is ineffective, it may be because your technique isn’t quite right. You should always stand or sit upright when using your inhaler. To start, remove the cap and hold the inhaler upright, shaking a couple of times before use. Breathe out fully and place the mouthpiece between your teeth, forming a good, tight seal around it.
Simultaneously, breathe in and press the canister down to release a puff of the inhaler. Slowly, continue to breathe in for 3-5 seconds, then hold your breath and remove the inhaler from your mouth. Keep holding your breath for 10 seconds and breathe out slowly. If you have been instructed to take two puffs of your inhaler, wait 30 seconds and repeat. After use, replace the cap.
Despite asthma being one of the most common respiratory conditions in the UK, poorly managed asthma can still be life-threatening. You should always keep your reliever inhaler (that’s usually the blue one!) on you at all times to manage potential asthma symptoms, especially if they’re severe enough to develop into an asthma attack.
If you’re showing symptoms or you’ve recently been diagnosed with asthma, speak to your GP for advice on the treatment options that are best for you. If you need any more information about asthma, visit the NHS or the Asthma UK website.