Asthma: an animation

Asthma is a chronic condition affecting the lungs which can be managed but not cured. This animation explains in detail what happens when someone has asthma.

In the UK, 5.4 million people are receiving treatment for asthma – that is 1 adult in 12 and 1 child in 11

Source: Asthma UK

Asthma is a common long-term condition that can cause a cough, wheezing, and breathlessness. The severity of the symptoms varies from person to person. Asthma can be controlled well in most people most of the time.

What is asthma?

Asthma is caused by inflammation of the airways. These are the small tubes, called bronchi, which carry air in and out of the lungs. If you have asthma, the bronchi will be inflamed and more sensitive than normal.

When you come into contact with something that irritates your lungs, known as a trigger (see below), your airways become narrow, the muscles around them tighten and there is an increase in the production of sticky mucus (phlegm). This leads to symptoms including:

  • difficulty breathing
  • wheezing and coughing
  • a tight chest

Read more about the symptoms of asthma.

A severe onset of symptoms is known as an asthma attack or an 'acute asthma exacerbation'. Asthma attacks may require hospital treatment and can sometimes be life-threatening, although this is rare.

For some people with chronic (long-lasting) asthma, long-term inflammation of the airways may lead to more permanent narrowing.

If you are diagnosed with asthma as a child, the symptoms may disappear during your teenage years. However, asthma can return in adulthood. Moderate to severe childhood symptoms are more likely to persist or return later in life. Although asthma does not only start in young people and can develop at any age. Read more about childhood asthma and how asthma is diagnosed.

What causes asthma?

The cause of asthma is not fully understood, although it is known to run in families. You are more likely to have asthma if one or both of your parents has the condition.

Common triggers

A trigger is anything that irritates the airways and brings on the symptoms of asthma. These differ from person to person and people with asthma may have several triggers.

Common triggers include house dust mites, animal fur, pollen, tobacco smoke, exercise, cold air and chest infections.

Read more about the causes of asthma.

Asthma can also be made worse by certain activities, such as work. For example, some nurses develop asthma symptoms after exposure to latex. This is often referred to as work-related asthma or occupational asthma.  

Treating asthma

While there is no cure for asthma, there are a number of treatments that can help effectively control the condition. Treatment is based on two important goals:

  • relieving symptoms 
  • preventing future symptoms and attacks from developing

Treatment and prevention involves a combination of medicines, lifestyle advice, and identifying and then avoiding potential asthma triggers.

Read more about living with asthma.

Who is affected?

In the UK, 5.4 million people are currently receiving treatment for asthma. That is 1 in every 12 adults and 1 in every 11 children. Asthma in adults is more common in women than men.

Last reviewed: 23/07/2012

Next review due: 23/07/2014


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carobriz said on 04 July 2012

can I have more links related with asthma please?

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usnavdoc said on 05 June 2012

Evidence is ra[idly accumulating that a major cause of the increase in childhood asthma and lung damage is diesel fumes/particles, even though filters are used.
Diesel output is more dangerous than petrol because of the less-than-5 micron sized particles - they can be taken up into the cells.
It is getting more and more difficult to purchase a petrol-engined car, and this is very worrying.
There is too much big business behind this for much real note to be taken, unfortunately..

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ellenmlp247 said on 05 March 2012

Just a thought - I have so many old plastic containers from previously used inhalers, why can't patients just be given the canister refills and save on the plastic containers which have to be thrown away after use. This would surely save quite a deal of money, resources and our planet..

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dotcom said on 17 February 2012

I have always suffered from dust, smoke and had reaction to paint, perfume and aerosols, but I was living abroad and so it was not diagnosed as asthma. However, 20 years ago, I was then in my forties, they discovered that I suffered asthma. I know that I cannot have a cat or cat hairs, I avoid any smoke, have to avoid any painting areas, need to vacuum daily as the house we rent is carpetted. But to be able to breathe is worth the trouble. I do yoga and swimming as I find it helps my breathing and somehow the moisture makes it better. Like August, I do like gardening so can suffer with that as well, we also live rurally and hayfever with streaming nose and wheezing becomes a problem. Hey ho such is life!

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august said on 24 February 2011

My asthma triggers (I am a 64 year old female) are furry pets, dust mites and any spray canisters. I now live in the country and do not have much traffic nearby which also helps as diesel fumes set me off. Tobacco smoke is also a trigger. I have to stay indoors when the farmers are spraying crops. This triggers a 4 day painful attack if I do not. If I am stressed I also start wheezing. The asthma came on when I was 61, prior to this I was very sporty, but now find gardening difficult. My life is now at a walking pace.

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lizw80 said on 22 August 2010

hi i have asthma as well i have found a book that is really good for understanding alergies it was called alergies from waterstones

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steely said on 20 August 2010

I am 51 years old and had Asthma from youth, my doctor suggested to get me involved in sport to strengthen my cardiovascular system, which I did but had to take a ventolin inhaler for years pre exercise.
Five years ago I decided to gut my house and renew everything inside and replace with new. We replaced all downstairs carpets with solid floors and had a leather suite instead of cloth. Since that day to this
I have not suffered Asthma of any kind and do not use Asthma medication either. I can only put it down to emptying my house of dust mite and the area I most live in (downstairs) is easily cleaned as it is all hard surfaces now and less prone to holding mite.
I hope this helps somebody ?

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Donna Lou said on 08 July 2010

I've not long since found out i have triggers asthma. Does anyone have any tips for me Please.

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redmistpete said on 18 November 2009

I developed asthma shortly after working with mutagens. The military told me it was just a cat allergy.

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