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Asthma is a very common long-term condition that affects the airways and breathing. Approximately one child in 8 and about one adult in 13 are currently being treated for asthma in the UK[1]. It can be so mild that it is hardly noticeable, or it can be sudden and severe causing the affected person to panic. Most cases are somewhere in between.

The cause of asthma is not fully understood. It is partly an allergic condition. There is also a genetic connection between asthma, hay fever and eczema, and this suggests that these three conditions can be inherited (they can run in families).

Asthma affects the airways, the small tubes that carry air in and out of the lungs. In someone with asthma, the airways are sensitive and easily become swollen. When they are irritated they narrow, the muscles around them tighten, and there may be an increase in production of sticky mucus or phlegm. It makes it harder for the person to get enough breath, and causes wheezing, coughing and a strong feeling that the air can't get in or out of the lungs.

Asthma does not usually cause trouble all the time. Attacks (when symptoms show themselves) may sometimes occur quite often, but in many cases the person with asthma is free from the trouble for quite long periods.

More than many disorders, asthma is a 'self-help' condition in which the affected person can do much to prevent attacks. When attacks do happen they can usually be stopped fairly quickly. However, it is not a trivial condition – around 1400 people die from it each year in the UK, and many of those deaths are avoidable if people know how to recognise the danger signs.