Asthma affects approximately one in nine Australians (that’s around 2.7 million of us). Many people treat asthma as a condition that comes and goes with their symptoms. But asthma is, in fact, a chronic (and long-term) condition that’s always there, even when you don’t have symptoms.
Get a diagnosis
Asthma Australia Educator, Karyn Oster, points out that you can’t self-diagnose asthma. “You need to know what you’re dealing with. It’s a medical condition,” she says.
Furthermore, asthma often overlaps with other diseases, so you might have more than one condition that should be addressed. Or, your symptoms might not be from asthma at all, Karyn says.
“If you self-diagnose and purchase over-the-counter treatment, you’re only going to be treating the symptoms of the asthma, not the underlying cause. If other conditions exist, you could make the asthma harder to control,” she says.
“It’s important to see the doctor to get a personalised plan and the right medication for treating all parts of asthma.”
Common mistakes dealing with asthma
Aside from self-diagnosing, another common mistake is poor puffer technique. Karyn explains that “it’s up to you to get the medication into your lungs where it needs to go.”
Some people may never have been shown how to correctly use a puffer or have fallen into poor habits. Therefore, the medication may only make it into the mouth and throat, rather than into the lungs, she says. “You’ve really got to time the inhalation quite accurately.”
Another common problem is not taking medication as prescribed – especially with preventers. “Managing your asthma is about more than relying on your blue reliever medication (like Asmol or Ventolin). In fact, using your reliever medication more than two days in seven may be a sign of poor asthma control,” says Karyn.
According to Asthma Australia, every year one in four asthmatics who only use a blue puffer and no preventer medication will need urgent medical treatment after suffering a dangerous flare-up.
Two main puffer types
Karyn explains there are two main medications types for managing asthma – relievers and preventers. “Relievers (like Ventolin) are available over the counter. They just treat the symptoms.
“They’re a bronchodilator, which means they relax the muscles in the airways. The reason those muscles need relaxing is because something has irritated the airways. The underlying cause is that the inside walls of the airways are hypersensitive, so they get swollen and inflamed and produce extra mucous when you come in contact with a trigger—whether that be smoke, pollen, cold air or something else.”
A trigger causes the airway muscles to tense up or ‘squeeze’ causing symptoms like shortness of breath, wheezing and chest tightness.
Rather than simply relieving these symptoms, preventers deal with the underlying cause of airway sensitivity. Karyn says the indications that you need a preventer include:
- having asthma symptoms twice or more during the past month;
- waking at night due to asthma symptoms once or more during the past month;
- having a flare-up requiring an urgent visit to a GP or emergency department in the past 12 months.
Karyn stresses that preventers are a low dose medication, so it can take two to four weeks before they reach full effect.
“Don’t expect a difference after a few days,” she says.
“Unfortunately, a lot of people assume it’s not working and stop using it before they get the therapeutic effect.”
Rather than stopping your medication, Karyn Oster advises seeing your doctor if you have concerns.
Top tips for using a puffer
Asthma Australia estimates around 90 per cent of people are probably using their inhalers incorrectly, which means the dose of medicine isn’t getting into the lungs.
Ask your doctor or pharmacist to check you’re using your inhaler correctly.
Pharmacists will often advise people to use a spacer with any kind of puffer because it makes getting medication into your lungs much easier. “Rather than getting [the medication] stuck in your mouth, it gives you a bit more time to inhale it” explains Karyn.
Most adults with asthma should use preventer medication daily. Regular use makes the airways less sensitive and will reduce asthma symptoms.
Asthma Action Plan
Karyn adds that developing a written Asthma Action Plan with your doctor is crucial. An Asthma Action Plain results in:
- better controlled asthma
- fewer asthma flare-ups
- fewer days off work or school
- reduced reliever medication use, and
- fewer hospital visits.
Learning asthma first aid is a good idea for anyone to do – and it could save a life. Asthma Australia has developed an Asthma First Aid App for people with asthma, their families and carers.