Attacking asthma

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One person a week in Ireland dies from an asthma attack. 90% of these are preventable. In winter time symptoms worsen so it’s important to know how to cope with it. 

Asthma is a common punchline in movies and TV shows, often portrayed as a wheezing geek-type. Severity of asthma cases differ, however all asthma sufferers will have certain triggers that could set off an attack.

The changing of seasons is often a difficult time for those with allergies, and as those with asthma are often more susceptible to allergies of all kinds it can be more vital than ever to know how to keep the symptoms of asthma under control.

Asthma is best defined by the Asthma Society of Ireland as “the airways become over-sensitive; meaning that they react to things that wouldn’t usually cause a problem, such as cold air or dust.”

When the airways are irritated, they tighten, mucus is created and the passages become blocked and swollen. This is a slower process to the tightening, and takes more work to relieve.

The main types of inhalers are preventers and relievers – preventers work gradually to stop the mucus build-up over time, and the reliever relaxes the muscles that have tightened. The preventer must be taken even when asthma symptoms seem non-existent.

Asthma is particularly common in Ireland and can be hereditary. Though most often it develops from childhood, asthma can develop after a respiratory tract infection (colds, flu, chest infections) in adults.

The Society also notes that asthma symptoms become worse in winter, as the wet and windy weather wreak havoc. Wet weather encourages mould growth, which can be blown around by the severe winds. One of the most difficult triggers to deal with, however, can be the simply the wind alone – made even worse when the wind is so cold.

It is worth using scarves or other wraps, such as half-face balaclavas, to cover the nose and mouth. This filters out the cold air, which can cause lungs and throat to tighten.

The wind can catch your breath also, and so it is recommended to keep an eye on the weather forecast before going outside if it will be a particularly bad day, and keep the windows closed in your home.

The Society recommends always taking medication as it is prescribed, keeping an update action-plan if an emergency occurs, and always carrying the blue reliever inhaler. Breathing through your nose instead of your mouth is also thought to be helpful.

An unseen trigger to asthma in the home also comes particularly as the weather grows cooler, and that is the lighting of candles and fires. Keeping chimney dust and candle smoke to a minimum is vital. Animals are often kept indoors for longer, and this common trigger can go unnoticed but needs to be kept an eye on.

Those with asthma are not only more susceptible to getting the flu but are also more susceptible to complications arising if they do catch it. The annual flu vaccine is extremely important for this reason and is free if you are in an at-risk group. Otherwise, it is 25 euro.

The Asthma Society covers the stigma involved with asthma, saying:

“There is a widespread, popular misconception that asthma is a mild disease that only affects children. Not many people are aware of the severe consequences it can have on a person’s quality of life.”

Social situations can be extremely difficult for those with asthma, particularly if their asthma is severe. Crowded rooms where it is difficult to breathe even for non-asthma sufferers, smoking areas, loud clubs and pubs where shouting for extended periods of time can put pressure on the lungs, are all part of a world many take for granted.

In a European study quoted by the Society, 69% of respondents said asthma had held them back from physical activities and sport. Quality of life is heavily affected by those with more severe asthma, and fear is often a large part of that. One Irish sufferer of asthma told the Society

“I was often worried about having an asthma attack in the middle of the night and not being able to call out for help. I would keep a shoe by my bed and would bang on the floor for my mother to hear in case I suffered an attack.”

It is a constant battle for those with chronic illnesses such as asthma to remain in control of their condition, as the Society points out:

“The whole aim of managing asthma is to put you in control of your asthma, rather than letting asthma control you.”

Approaching exam season it is also important to make sure symptoms are well managed to avoid an upset that could affect exams, the Society suggests that if you are an asthma sufferer and happen to be suffering from a cold, flu, throat or nose infection, to deal with this promptly.

If there are ever concerns about the symptoms of asthma worsening, some important signs are waking in the night with coughing, wheezing, or tightness of the chest, as well as shortness of breath in the morning. If you feel you have been taking or wanting to take your reliever more often or have been unable to keep up your usual level of activity, see your doctor for an assessment.

Asthma can also make the sufferer feel more lethargic as the body works harder when the symptoms are badly controlled, and disturbed sleep from asthma can have this effect too. Alongside the common Seasonal Affective Disorder which can bring fatigue and depression, it remains increasingly important to take care of yourself both physically and mentally.

They recommend a strong relationship with your doctor or asthma nurse and keeping a daily routine of managing and preventing symptoms of asthma. It is recommended to have your asthma reviewed once a year. While the illness is not curable, it can be well-managed to the point of living practically symptom-free.

If you’re ever in an emergency, have an ‘Asthma Attack’ button on their homepage with immediate advice available. Call 999 if the symptoms do not improve after ten minutes.

Go to a doctor and keep your health in check, as a gift to yourself this coming winter.

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