IMAGINE being so breathless that you can’t speak or ask for help, as your chest gets tighter and you struggle to get air into your lungs.
This frightening scenario is what an asthma attack can feel like — and it’s not that uncommon.
Anyone can develop asthma, and is it the most common chronic disease in Ireland, one in five children and 1 in ten adults have asthma.
Many people who experience asthma attacks go on to get the help they need from a GP, and learn to manage the condition on a day-to-day basis.
But worryingly, with a worst case scenario, asthma attacks can kill — and it’s estimated that two-thirds of asthma-related deaths would be preventable with better routine care and more information about the triggers and treatments.
With that in mind, here, Francesca Brenca, a pharmacist from LloydsPharmacy in the UK, talks us through the key points everybody should be aware of...
What is asthma?
“Asthma is a respiratory condition where a person’s airways — the small tubes that carry air in and out of the lungs — become inflamed, making it difficult to breathe,” says Brenca.
When a person with asthma comes into contact with something that irritates their airways, known as a ‘trigger’, it causes the muscles around the airway walls to tighten.
In response, the airways become narrower, the lining of the airways swell and sticky mucus builds up in the area.
Although there is no cure for asthma, Brenca notes that it is the most common lung condition around.
“The symptoms can vary from person to person and it is often diagnosed in children, however asthma can also develop for the first time later in life — this is known as adult-onset or late-onset asthma.”
What causes asthma?
The causes are not always clear, but there can be risk factors.
“Research indicates you are more likely to develop asthma for reasons such as if your birth weight was low or you were born prematurely, or [you have a ] family history of asthma or allergies,” says Brenca.
“You may also be more at risk if you already experience allergies, like eczema or hay fever, you spend time around smokers, or you’re exposed to certain substances through work.”
Brenca adds that other potential, but lesser-known, causes of asthma can include hormonal imbalances in women, with some first developing the condition before or after the menopause.
What are the symptoms of asthma in adults?
“The symptoms of asthma in both adults and children are similar and can range from mild to more serious,” says Brenca.
“The main symptoms include wheezing, chest tightness, feeling breathless and coughing.”
As people’s experiences with asthma can differ, not everyone will get all of the symptoms at once.
Some may also just get them from time to time and will continue to live their lives normally.
However, Brenca explains that 5% of people with asthma have severe symptoms and require specialist support and care.
What treatments are available?
“The most common way to treat asthma is to use an inhaler,” says Brenca. These are portable devices that administer medication by breathing it in.
“There are a few types of inhalers that your GP might recommend. Reliever inhalers are usually blue and will relieve symptoms when they flare up,” Brenca explains.
“Most people with asthma will be given this inhaler, but they may also need a preventative inhaler, which is used to stop symptoms developing.
“If both the reliever and preventative inhalers do not control asthma symptoms, you will likely be given a combination inhaler. These are used daily to help provide relief from symptoms occurring.”
If you’re worried you may have the symptoms of asthma, the best thing you can do is speak to your GP.
Brenca adds that you may also benefit from visiting your pharmacist to discuss how to manage your asthma and which treatments would be best for you.
LloydsPharmacy, for instance, offer an in-store respiratory support service, where you can get free and confidential advice on how to control your symptoms.
What should you do if you have an asthma attack but you don’t have an inhaler?
If you experience a sudden asthma attack and you don’t have your inhaler handy, the bottom line is to seek emergency medical help. “It is vital you call 999 immediately,” says Brenca.
“While you’re waiting for a paramedic to arrive, sit upright (don’t lie down), and take slow and steady breaths. Try to remain calm,” she adds.
“If you panic, then your symptoms will feel worse.
“If you are near something you know triggers your asthma, such as cigarette smoke, you should move away immediately and, if you can, find an area with clean air.”