Just imagine not being able to get enough breath - you're wheezing and gasping but you still can't get enough air in to move or maybe even to speak. That's what an asthma attack feels like - and 5.4 million people in the UK have asthma. Asthma is closely linked with hay fever and eczema - and poorly controlled hay fever symptoms can make asthma worse. Astonishingly, many asthma sufferers smoke - and some even try to persuade me it 'opens their airways'. Just - NO!
Despite all the advances in treatments in recent years, far too many people live with symptoms every day. Asthma can stop you exercising, disrupt your sleep, prevent you getting to work or school. For the vast majority of people, the right treatment should keep your asthma well controlled. That means you live a completely normal life, and only know you've got asthma when you take your regular treatment. Yet a recent survey by Asthma UK suggests tens of thousands of people aren't taking the right treatment.
As a doctor, I see patients every day whose lives are blighted by asthma, but who aren't using their treatment properly because of the myths that abound about asthma. So I thought I'd embark on a myth-busting campaign:
Myth 1 - inhalers don't work if you don't feel them working
There are two main types of inhalers for asthma - 'relievers' and 'preventers'. 'Relievers', like salbutamol or terbutaline, work very fast to open your airways but only last a few hours. Preventers, like steroid inhalers and 'LABAs' take longer to take effect but keep working, reducing inflammation and flare-ups of asthma. Some, like Symbicort®, have both a reliever and a preventer effect.
Myth 2 - using a steroid inhaler will make my hair fall out/make me fat/cause thinning of the bones
High doses of steroid tablets, especially taken long term, can make you prone to high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes or thinning of the bones. But the dose of steroid in your inhaler is tiny. It works at a low dose because it goes straight to your lungs, where it's needed. Overall, you're far less likely to come to any harm from taking your steroid inhaler regularly than not taking it. What's more, if you do have a severe attack because you haven't taken your steroid inhaler, you're likely to need steroid tablets at a higher dose.
Myth 3 - I should 'save' my inhaler until I really need it, or it will stop working so well
I have no idea why so many patients believe this, but it's probably the commonest myth I hear. In short, there is no evidence that taking regular treatment long-term will make it any less effective.
Myth 4 - asthma only affects young people
Although asthma is more common in children (it affects one in 10), one in 20 adults also have asthma. Most of them had asthma since childhood, but asthma can sometimes come on in later life. More commonly though, wheezing and breathlessness which start later in life is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) - a chronic lung condition usually (but not always) down to smoking.
Myth 5 - all inhalers are the same
There are many kinds of inhaler out there and they all need different techniques to get enough medicine deep down into your airways, where it's needed. If you feel yours isn't working as well as you'd like, book an appointment with your practice nurse to get your inhaler technique checked. Many pharmacists also offer this service. If you can't use your inhaler properly, even after a demonstration from the nurse or pharmacist, ask your GP or nurse about changing to a different inhaler. Ask for a practice inhaler before it's issued, so you know you can use the new one properly.
Myth 6 - asthma doesn't kill
Oh, yes, it does, if it isn't properly treated. Warning signs of a severe asthma attack include being too breathless to speak whole sentences; feeling your 'reliever' isn't working; rapid breathing (more than 25 breaths/minute); heart rate above 110 beats/minute). Seek medical help urgently to avoid disaster.
With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.
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