Australia has about 2.3 million people with asthma – the highest in the world. Not a small number by any standards. Beyond the statistics are the stories about what life is really like for sufferers and their families. Frequent hospital visits, and when symptoms are severe, knowing that your loved one may not pull through. That’s on top of coping with the financial cost, lost days of work and stress.
But before you think asthma is a debilitating condition, consider this – Olympic swimming medallists Mark Spitz and Greg Louganis, track and field great Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Tour de France winner Jan Ullrich – all suffered from the condition. Millions of people have overcome it to lead a full life.
While asthma is easy to diagnose, little is known about what causes it or why the rates are so high in Australia. People with asthma have sensitive airways in their lungs which react to triggers, causing a flare-up. The muscles squeeze tight, restricting air supply, making it very hard to breathe.
There are a few different triggers for an attack:
- viral infections such as cold and flu
- dust, pollution, wood smoke and bushfire smoke
- emotional factors, especially stress
- home allergens such as dust-mite droppings, pet allergens and mould
- cigarette smoke
- chemicals and strong smells
The importance of an action plan
Every asthma patient – old and young – needs to have an action plan. This is really important and yet only 41% of children and 20% of people over the age of 15 have a written plan. An ideal asthma plan should contain these elements:
- Daily dosage – which medicine, how many times a day and at what time should be clearly stated on the document.
- List of symptoms that indicate an attack is coming on. Each asthma patient reacts differently to triggers, so this information is important.
- First response during an attack. This should clearly state the dosage of the medication to be administered and how to monitor the response.
- When is it an emergency? The action plan needs to state the point at which urgent medical care is needed and it is time to call the ambulance.
- Keep the plan in a designated spot and put it back after use
It is not enough to have just an action plan. It needs to be routinely reviewed and updated by your GP. A fair bit of work has gone into designing good action plans and these are now available in various formats including mobile apps.
It is possible to manage asthma well enough to lead a normal life. Controlling asthma has two elements to it – taking the right dosage of preventive medication and reducing exposure to known allergens and triggers. For those diagnosed with asthma, preventive medicines which make the airways less sensitive, reduce swelling and dry up the mucus need to be taken every day. Daily medication can reduce the number of attacks.
Controlling exposure to allergens
Often those with asthma also have allergies that can trigger an attack. One way to keep asthma attacks in check is to control the environment to the extent possible.
- Try and stay indoors when the pollen count is high. This is usually during spring, but those sensitive to pollen can be affected all year round.
- Change air-conditioner filters, clean heating ducts and all devices airing the house regularly, but especially before winter when more time is spent indoors. These will circulate dust and allergens if they are not cleaned. Steam cleaning the carpets more frequently will help too.
- Control household humidity. Depending on where you live and how old your house is, you may need to install a dehumidifier. This will also control mould – another allergen.
- Review all chemicals used in the house, including household cleaners. Some of these could contain substances that cause sensitivity.
- Keep away from areas with smoke, wood dust and pollution.
Watch for symptoms
If you don’t have asthma, doesn’t mean you won’t. It can strike at any age. Studies have shown that adult asthma is frequently undiagnosed and under-treated. In Australia, only 20% of those over the age of 15 have an active action plan. Also, whilst more men have asthma in the 0-14 age group, more women suffer a late onset. So, shortness of breath, frequent coughing at night and wheezing are all reasons to see a GP. Adult onset asthma can be caused by a number factors:
- Hormonal changes caused by pregnancy or menopause
- Cat allergies
- Environmental irritants such as tobacco smoke, dust and mould
- Occupational asthma caused by workplace triggers e.g. chemicals.
There is a lot of awareness about asthma, treatment and programs. There are organisations, government and non-profit, that provide information and resources to patients and their carers that can help them reach the right specialists, create an effective management plan and go on to lead a fulfilling life.