Asthma is a complex condition affects one in every nine Australians, that’s around 2.7 million people. The good news is, the number of asthma deaths in Australia has dropped significantly over the past several years from 457 in 2016 to 389 in 2018. However, that doesn’t mean we can become complacent about treating asthma.

Here’s what you need to know.

Current situation

Asthma is often underestimated by patients. Dr Ian Almond, GP spokesperson for the National Asthma Council (NAC), says the number of deaths caused by asthma is still too high.

“All asthma deaths should be preventable, in a perfect world… but you can get a constellation of events that cause a real problem – the wrong things happening at the wrong time and not having the optimum medication to put it to rest.”

One of the most notorious asthma-related events in recent years was the thunderstorm asthma epidemic in Melbourne in 2016 which killed 10 people. It is believed increased awareness after this event played a huge role in the reducing the number of deaths in following years.  Many of those who died in the Melbourne asthma storm had not been previously diagnosed with the disease.

There are many factors preventing asthma suffers from taking the proper steps to manage their condition. In June, research revealed the cost of asthma medication is preventing many sufferers from taking prescribed treatments. More generally, there are concerns that patients too often underestimate the serious nature of their asthma.

“People are willing to accept a little bit of recklessness or difficulty or encroachment on their lifestyle as the accepted thing, so there is a lot of sub-optimal asthma management,” Dr Almond said.

“They think, ‘I’m going to get a big of a wheeze now and again, but I’m not going to die from it… but the reality can be a lot worse and more fatal than that.”

New severe asthma checklist

The NAC has created a new resource, the severe asthma checklist, which GPs can use to help patients identify and manage their asthma and its degree of severity.

“It provides a summary of all the information that’s available in the NAC handbook, in a format that is easy-to-use, practical, and provides benefits for the treating GP and, more importantly for the person with asthma, in that they will be getting the improvement of the treatment,” Dr Almond said.

The checklist includes a list of common issues for people experiencing asthma such as adherence, triggers, reliever overuse, inhaler technique and helping GPs to identify the best course of action.

What is asthma?

Asthma is a medical condition that affects the airways. The long-term lung condition inflames the airways when exposed to certain triggers. It affects people of all ages and can appear at all stages of life.

Environmental factors and genetics often play a part; however, it is still not known why some people develop asthma. A child’s risk of getting asthma can be increased by mothers smoking while pregnant, people smoking around babies or young children, air pollution, and being born premature or with a low birth weight. Adults can develop asthma over time from exposure to indoor air pollution. Athletes can also develop asthma after very intensive training over several years, especially while breathing air that is polluted, cold or dry.

Asthma affects everyone differently, however some common symptoms include;

  • Wheezing
  • Breathlessness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Coughing
  • Chest tightness.

The best ways to manage asthma include; medication, regular medical visits for check-ups and to learn more about living with asthma, and an action plan so you know exactly what to do when symptoms happen.

What to do in an asthma emergency?

It is important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of an asthma attack and an asthma emergency.

If you are experiencing an asthma attack you may experience the following:

  • You have increasing wheezing, cough, chest tightness or shortness of breath
  • You are waking often at night with asthma symptoms
  • You need to use your reliever again within 3 hours.

If it is an asthma emergency, you may experience:

  • Symptoms getting worse very quickly
  • Sever shortness of breath, can’t speak comfortably or lips look blue
  • You get little or no relief from your reliever inhaler.

If you are ever unsure about what you should do in an emergency, call an ambulance immediately.

If you are seeking professional medical advice on how to manage your asthma, visit your GP.