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    What is asthma?

    On this page
    1. What are asthma irritants?
    2. What are the different types of asthma?
    3. How will having asthma affect me?

    Asthma is a very common respiratory condition. It is caused by inflammation in the lungs, particularly in the smaller airways (bronchioles) and air sacs (alveoli). While asthma is a chronic (long-term) condition, symptoms generally come and go, often varying in severity over time.

    What are asthma irritants?


    Having asthma means that your airways are particularly sensitive to specific irritants - exposure to these can cause your condition to flare up and lead to an asthma attack. Your specific triggers, or what irritates your airways, are personal to you - these can include dust, pollen, animal hair, cigarette smoke and viruses.

    Asthma attacks

    An irritated airway reacts by narrowing. The muscles in its walls tighten and the linings of the air sacs become inflamed and swell. Both of these processes reduce the space air has to get in and out of the lungs. The linings of the lungs also secrete mucus, which can block the already narrowed airways. The end result is one or more of the typical asthma symptoms:

    • wheezing
    • coughing
    • breathlessness
    • tightening of the chest

    While some people will find they only suffer from one of these (e.g. coughing), others will get all of the symptoms together.

    For further information see our doctors’ articles what is an asthma attack? and common asthma symptoms.

    What are the different types of asthma?

    Although many people have asthma (over 5 million in the UK), the way in which any two people are affected can vary greatly. As a result, there are a number of ways of classifying the disease. It is helpful to pinpoint your specific asthma type and triggers - the better you understand your condition, the easier it will be to manage and treat.

    Allergic vs. non-allergic

    One way to classify asthma is to separate it into allergic (extrinsic) and non-allergic (intrinsic).

    For those who suffer from allergic asthma, your immune system is triggered by exposure to an allergen such as animal hair, pollen and mould spores. You will often know what your triggers are, and avoiding them as much as possible will go a long way in helping you to control your symptoms.

    For those who suffer from non-allergic asthma, other factors typically trigger your condition. These can include stress, anxiety, exercise, cold air, or a virus. However, the symptoms will be the same as those of allergic asthma.


    Another way to classify asthma is by how severe the symptoms are.

    If your asthma only bothers you occasionally and is easily controlled, it is described as mild. Someone with severe asthma, on the other hand, will have more frequent and troublesome symptoms, often controlled by a number of different medicines. Even if you have mild to moderate symptoms you will often need a preventer inhaler (often brown) in addition to your reliever inhaler (usually blue).


    Although asthma often starts in childhood, some people will not have their first symptoms until they are adults. This is known as adult-onset asthma, and is more common in women (due to hormonal factors such as pregnancy or menopause) and those with existing allergies. It may also occur after a virus such as a bad cold or flu.

    In 10% of cases of adult-onset asthma, something in the workplace is responsible for triggering symptoms. This is known as occupational asthma, and especially affects those with specific jobs, such as farmers, painters, cleaners, and plastic workers. If you have occupational asthma, you should be seen by either an asthma or an occupational health specialist.

    Healthy looking man standing outside Healthy looking man standing outside

    How will having asthma affect me?

    Despite all the various types and triggers of asthma, the message for everyone is the same: you should be able to continue your day-to-day life without any restrictions. If you find yourself experiencing regular or troublesome symptoms - and lots of people do - make sure you do not ignore this. Some simple adjustments to your inhalers can make all the difference. Your doctor will give you a Personal Action Plan (PAP), and you can always ask for help from your online doctor or GP if you cannot get your symptoms under control.

    Our doctors can prescribe the most commonly used inhalers without the need for a face-to-face visit. To find out more, visit our asthma treatments at our asthma clinic.

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