Thought to affect 5.4 million people in the UK1, asthma is a long-term condition in which over-sensitive airways become inflamed, making it difficult to breathe normally. The causes are not fully understood, but asthma is one of a group of allergic conditions (including eczema and hay fever) that often occur together.
The most common symptoms are coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath and tightness in the chest. These are usually intermittent, unpredictable in their duration and severity and often worse at night. They can be provoked by triggers such as pollen, dust, feathers, furry animals, exercise, viral infections, chemicals and tobacco smoke.2
Although it is a serious condition, asthma can be well controlled in most people. The two main types of drug used to treat asthma are administered by inhalers:
1. Bronchodilators are inhaled when an asthma attack occurs. They relax the airways to make them open wider. Everyone with asthma should have a reliever inhaler.
2. Preventer inhalers lessen the risk of severe attacks by reducing inflammation in the airways and preventing them from becoming too sensitive. Not everyone with asthma needs a preventer medicine, but those who do usually take them every day. Corticosteroids are the most commonly used preventer drugs, but leukotriene receptor antagonists (LTRAs) are often used in children.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the name for airflow obstruction diseases of the lung (such as chronic bronchitis and emphysema) which prevent people from breathing properly.
The main cause is smoking; although around 900,000 people have been diagnosed in the UK, it is thought that about 3.7 million are in fact affected. It causes about 30,000 deaths a year.3
The condition builds up over time, making breathing and everyday activities progressively difficult and increasing the risk of heart failure. Because COPD causes permanent lung damage, treatment usually involves relieving the symptoms by using an inhaler to make breathing easier.
1 http://www.asthma.org.uk/all_about_asthma/asthma_basics/index.html - Accessed 14/06/10
2 http://www.nhs.uk/Pathways/asthma/Pages/Symptoms.aspx - Accessed 14/06/10
3 http://www.lunguk.org/media-and-campaigning/campaigns/worldcopdday - Accessed 14/06/10