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“How do I feel emotionally? I’m anxious – like many people,” Julie Thompson Dredge, 42, from Petersfield, tells me, when I ask how she’s managing her asthma. “I’m living with a certain amount of dread, doing things like sorting out my will should the worst happen – as I know I could be in trouble if I got coronavirus.”
Many people are anxious about their health right now, but it’s worse for those classed as vulnerable. Back in March, the government released guidelines for those “at very high risk” if they were to contract coronavirus – and that included people with asthma. The national charity Asthma UK is constantly updating its guidelines to make sure people are effectively managing their condition.
But what’s it really like for sufferers?
Thompson Dredge was diagnosed at 18 – the first week she went away to uni, when she was hospitalised – and has managed the condition ever since. In the past she’s dealt with bad flare ups, A&E and ICU visits due to her symptoms.
“It’s under control at the moment,” she says, “but the pandemic has meant I’m ultra vigilant about keeping on top of my medication: taking it twice daily, making sure I have three months’ supply at home, and it’s also made me really conscious about not going out.”
Precautions she’s taken include cleaning with fewer products: “I use a steam mop and less stringent chemicals. Scented candles are a no no, as well as perfume.”
For some asthma sufferers, the worry is constant. Sonal Dack, 45, from south-east London, says when she heard about Covid-19, she was immediately more worried about a ‘surprise’ asthma attack if she caught the virus, so she’s been hyper-aware of the slightest change in how she breathes.
Dack, who’s been managing her asthma since she was five, is currently recovering from a heavy bout of symptoms associated with coronavirus.
“It’s been mentally quite tiring to constantly monitor my breathing but then try and stay calm if for example my chest feels tight or my breathing feels laboured,” she tells HuffPost UK. “I know from experience that getting agitated can make it worse. Fortunately, it’s not ever become too bad and I’ve been able to control it with medication.”
Dack started taking her preventer inhaler more regularly, but had to stop because it was drying her throat out and making her cough more. “I keep my blue inhaler on me all the time and don’t hesitate to take it at the slightest sign of breathing difficulties. Normally I’d try and see if it will pass, but I don’t think it’s worth risking it right now. I don’t want to give our doctors any more work!”
“Normally I’d try and see if it will pass, but I don’t think it’s worth risking it right now”
Samantha Smith was initially under the impression she’d be fine during the pandemic, but started to struggle with her breathing after a trip to London. “Thankfully it was just a bad chest infection, but it meant I stopped being so ignorant to it and began to take precautions by regularly visiting Asthma UK’s website for coronavirus updates,” she says.
The 27-year-old, from Swadlincote in South Derbyshire has had asthma since primary school, but it’s been increasingly hard to manage as she’s got older. “Last year alone I was put on steroids five times and this year I’ve had four weeks worth so far. If I’m poorly, I feel like someone is pushing down on my chest and making it impossible to breathe.”
Since the outbreak, Smith has refused to see her boyfriend of seven years – he’s also an asthma sufferer, as well as his dad. “I’m worried about it because I don’t know what will happen to me if I get it – look at Boris Johnson as an example. I am taking self-isolation very seriously and I’m not using my daily exercise outside just in case I encounter someone who may be unwell.”
It’s been tough, Smith adds, and has created tension at home. “I had an argument with my dad because I wasn’t allowed to leave the house and broke down in front of my parents,” she says. “I’m independent and usually take care of everyone around me, rather than the other way round. I’ve had friends messaging offering to get me food and supplies and I hated it.
“It’s kind, yes, but it made me feel like I was incapable.”
Lydia Hutton, from Cardiff, has also been taking notice of her breathing a lot more than usual – and has stopped a couple of times to think if she needs her reliever. As a young child, Hutton was hospitalised due to her asthma. Day to day, it’s manageable, but she can’t go for more than 24 hours without her preventive [brown] inhaler before experiencing symptoms. “Taking my medication has become the same as brushing my teeth, I have to do it but as long as I do it doesn’t restrict the things I want to do,” she says.
Since coronavirus, she’s more aware of making sure her inhaler is on hand, and ensures she has her reliever [blue] inhaler with her at all times.
“I would often go weeks without knowing where the blue reliever was but now I know I have a spare in the car and one on my person every day.” She has also printed and updated her asthma action plan.
Some sufferers are managing right now. Kirsty Warwick, 47, from Wimbledon, has mild asthma – and has done since her 20s. In preparation, she got her next two months of inhalers just before lockdown so she felt more secure at home. Her husband was concerned before lockdown that she shouldn’t be going out and about, but so far during the pandemic, she’s felt well and healthy.
“When I had a cough a few weeks ago, I was wary,” she says, “but I put it down to hay fever as I had no other symptoms and it wasn’t persistent.” Warwick has also reduced her trips out, which she says is easier now kids aren’t at school.
What to do if your asthma gets worse
If your asthma is getting worse and you have symptoms of Covid-19, use the 111 online service or call 111. Don’t go to your doctor’s surgery. When you contact 111, let them know that you have asthma and that you’re getting asthma symptoms. Explain how often you are using your reliever inhaler and if it’s not working completely or lasting for four hours.
If your asthma is getting worse and you don’t have symptoms of Covid-19, make an urgent appointment to see your GP.