Diagnosing asthma

Asthma is a lung disease that can present in many different ways. So how can you spot the signs and symptoms and when should you see your GP?

Signs and symptoms of asthma

Bupa’s National Medical Director Dr Rob Grenfell says asthma can vary in what it means to certain people.

“For some, it might be a bit of a cough or exaggerated breathlessness when they’re physically exerting themselves, for others it might be a chronic cough that persists after a cold or flu,” Dr Grenfell says. 
 
“It might be a little kid who is running and they might be okay to run and then they slow right down and start coughing or seem a bit short of breath more than they should be,” he says.
 
“It can be really subtle and can come on at any age,” says Dr Grenfell. “You might find you used to be able to walk a certain distance and now you’re getting breathless.”
 
“As an adult you might think you’re unfit but on the list of possibilities it could be adult onset asthma.”
 
Some of the common signs and symptoms to look for include: a wheezy cough or difficulty breathing that happens at a certain time of year, or is set off by exercise and gets worse at night.
 
“Asthma fits in with the allergic complex of conditions, so if someone has had eczema or hay fever the potential of asthma is there and needs to be ruled out.”
lady puffed after running

Testing for asthma

A doctor will make a diagnosis of asthma after speaking to you to get a detailed medical history, examining you and performing a lung function test.

“The gold standard test is a lung function test and that requires a thing called a spirometer which a lot of general practices now have,” says Dr Grenfell. 

To take the test you need to blow as hard as you can for as long as possible into a mouthpiece which is connected to a monitoring machine.

“A spirometer can work out how your lungs are taking air in and how your lungs are taking air out. It measures lung capacity and the function of the airways.”

It can be a lot harder to diagnose children, as spirometer tests generally aren’t performed in those under 6-years-old.

Instead, doctors look at a child’s medical history, listen to a child’s breathing and if necessary trial a child’s response to asthma medication.

Asthma management  

Dr Grenfell says the key to good management is to understand your asthma. What causes it, what sets it off and knowing what treatments are available.

Your GP will put together an Asthma Action plan, a detailed treatment map that outlines what to do and when.
 
“It’s really about having a sensible plan in place,” says Dr Grenfell.
 
“For people with chronic asthma it’s pretty clear cut, if you don’t take your long term medication you’ll get worse and if you get worse you can’t do things,” he says.
 
It’s important those with asthma avoid working in dusty environments or take preventive measures like wearing a mask. Smoking can also irritate the lungs of someone living with asthma, so if you smoke, an asthma diagnosis is another good reason to kick the habit.
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