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Treating asthma: Personalised medicine

WebMD Medical Reference
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

A lot of people think that treating asthma is simple - when you start wheezing, just take a puff from an inhaler.

But it's not that straightforward for most people. Every case of asthma is different and the disease can take many forms. So each person's treatment needs to be different too. The medication that works for your relative, your friend or your neighbour may not work for you.

Every person who has been diagnosed with asthma needs a treatment plan that's tailored to his or her specific needs.

What's more, your asthma treatment may need to be adjusted regularly. Because the disease is constantly changing, along with your life and related influences, the treatment that once worked very well may no longer be the best choice.

Your past experience of asthma cannot always be used to predict what your asthma will be like in the future. As your symptoms change, your treatment needs to be modified.

So it's important that you and your GP or asthma nurse develop a personalised treatment plan. When it comes to asthma treatment, one size does not fit all.

Misunderstanding asthma

Many people with asthma only think about it when they are having an attack, but controlling asthma does not just mean treating flare-ups with an inhaler. It's not like taking a painkiller for the occasional headache.

If you're just using a bronchodilator - a rescue or reliever drug - you may not be dealing with the real disease or treating the underlying inflammation in the airways.

Many people still don't realise that asthma is a long-term disease, and it is still there even when you're feeling well.

In fact, the inflammation in the airways can worsen without causing any symptoms and only lung function tests may detect it. Even if you do have worsening symptoms, the changes may happen so slowly that you don't notice.

As with any long-term (chronic) disease, people get used to their asthma. They think living with debilitating symptoms is normal.

Asthma: A changeable disease

Asthma and asthma treatment can be affected by a number of things.

  • Age. As children grow up, their asthma can change a great deal. For some, it goes away. For others, it gets worse. Children are also often exposed to more allergens while on holiday or playing sport outdoors.
  • Environment. Your surroundings can have a huge effect on your asthma. Obviously, you'll be exposed to very different allergens if you move from the city to the country or vice versa. But much less dramatic changes can still have a tremendous impact. You may encounter all sorts of new triggers in a new house or at a new job. Even the most subtle change, like a colleague using a new perfume, can irritate your airways and make your asthma worsen dramatically.
  • Genes. It’s still the early stages of understanding the genetics of asthma, but researchers believe that genes play a big role. They may affect the course of your disease and how well a treatment will work.
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