Asthma happens when the airways become sensitive, causing the muscles in the airways to narrow the air passages and produce mucous, which further narrows the airways. As a result air cannot travel to the bottom of the lungs, and it is hard to breathe both in and out. This causes the wheeze or whistling breath that is one of the signs of asthma.
Common causes of asthma are pollen, animal hair, cigarette smoke, mould and dust. If you or any of your family suffer from hayfever, eczema or were milk allergic as a child asthma is more likely to develop. Changes of temperature and exercise can also trigger an asthma attack.
In New Zealand, asthma is very common, especially in children, but doctors will not usually diagnose asthma in a child until they are 2 years or older, as wheezy breathing may ease once the airways have developed.
An asthma attack can occur quickly, and may resolve quickly with prompt treatment. It is important to keep medication on hand at all times, as night time attacks are common, and can occur without warning.
If you suspect you or someone in your family may have asthma, then consult your doctor to get prompt diagnosis and treatment, or to set your mind at rest. Most people, even the very young, can use inhaled medication to treat the shortness of breath that occurs with asthma. However, you should not rely on treating the symptoms of asthma alone, as damage can occur to the lungs. Most asthmatics are given preventer medication which if used regularly, as prescribed, will prevent attacks of asthma occurring.
Your community pharmacist can help with advice as to correct use of asthma inhalers, as they are often difficult to manage effectively, particularly when breathing is difficult. Devices such as spacers will help you to use both reliever and preventer medicines and are invaluable in good asthma treatment.
Every time you collect new medicines for your asthma, get your community pharmacist to check your inhaler technique, and see if you need new spacers or peak flow meters, which measure how well your lungs are working.
Your community pharmacist is there to help you manage your asthma – so you are in charge, not the asthma.