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People mistakenly believe that asthma is not a serious condition. This doesn't just apply to people who don't have asthma, even those with the condition sometimes don't realise that the consequences can be fatal. With 1,237 people in England and Wales dying from an asthma attack in 2016, it's time to end this complacency.
We know from our own data that many people with asthma fail to understand the seriousness of their condition. Hundreds of people ring Asthma UK's Helpline unaware that they are having a potentially life-threatening asthma attack.
Between October 2015 and July 2017 378 callers were told by one of our specialist nurses to call an ambulance or go to A&E because they were having an asthma attack.
While it may seem surprising that a person with asthma wouldn't recognise symptoms that could result in hospitalisation, a lot of people calling the helpline aren't sure their symptoms are bad enough to justify going to hospital or their GP. They are looking for someone to validate the seriousness of the issue.
If you have asthma, it is important to familiarise yourself with the warning signs of an asthma attack.
You're having an asthma attack if any of the following happens:
• Your reliever isn't helping or lasting over four hours
• Your symptoms are getting worse (cough, breathlessness, wheeze or tight chest)
• You're too breathless or it's difficult to speak, eat or do normal activities
• Your breathing is getting faster and it feels like you can't get your breath in properly
If you are having an asthma attack you should*:
1. Sit up straight - don't lie down. Try to keep calm
2. Take one puff of your reliever inhaler (usually blue) every 30-60 seconds, up to a maximum of 10 puffs
3. If you feel worse at any point while you're using your inhaler or you don't feel better after 10 puffs or you're worried at any time, call 999 for an ambulance
4. If the ambulance is taking longer than 15 minutes you can repeat step two
For most people, symptoms rarely just come out of the blue: asthma attacks are the result of symptoms getting gradually worse over a few days.
Needing to use your reliever inhaler three or more times a week may suggest that your asthma is not as well-managed as it could be. If your asthma symptoms are getting worse or you're using your reliever inhaler more, don't ignore it. Make an urgent appointment to see your GP, asthma nurse or consultant within 24 hours.
Asthma is a long-term condition - the inflammation and sensitivity in the airways is always there even if symptoms aren't. So, good everyday self-management is important. To help reduce your risk of an asthma attack:
• Take your medicines as prescribed and discussed with your GP or asthma nurse
• Use a written asthma action plan - this cuts your risk of ending up in hospital with asthma by four times
• Have regular asthma reviews with your GP or asthma nurse
• Check with your GP or asthma nurse that you're using your inhaler correctly
• Know your triggers - if you understand which things trigger your asthma you might be able to avoid them
• Monitor your asthma symptoms so you're aware if they're getting worse
• Don't smoke
• Keep your weight at a healthy level, or lose weight if you need to after checking with your GP or asthma nurse that your weight loss plan is suitable for you
• Have an annual flu vaccination if you're eligible
Getting clued-up on your asthma can make a big difference. Asthma UK's Helpline team is there to support you, whether you have asthma or someone close to you does. Our nurses can help you if you want to find out more about diagnosis, treatment, managing symptoms or dealing with the side effects of medicines.
Remember, there is no such thing as a silly question. The more you understand about the condition, the better your chance of staying well - so don't be afraid to ask.
The Asthma UK Helpline provides independent confidential advice from asthma nurse specialists on 0300 222 5800 (Mon-Fri, 9am-5pm) If you can't call, or would prefer to get advice by email, use the online contact form at www.asthma.org.uk/advice/resources/helpline/contact and you'll get a response within five working days.
* This asthma attack information is not designed for people on a SMART or MART regime. People on a SMART or MART regime should speak to their GP or asthma nurse to get the correct asthma attack information.