Understanding asthma

Asthma is a condition that affects the airways in your lungs. People with asthma have sensitive airways that become inflamed when exposed to triggers. Inflammation causes the airways to narrow and swell and may lead to the production extra mucus. This can make breathing difficult and trigger symptoms such as coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath.

For some people, asthma is a minor issue, but for others it can be a major problem that interferes with daily activities. It is a complex condition that impacts everyone differently. Some people develop asthma as a child, others as adults. Some people have symptoms often, some only for a shorter period. Sometimes asthma can flare up and symptoms become worse compared to usual – this is known as an asthma attack, which is a medical emergency. (Call 000 immediately and follow your asthma action plan if you are having an asthma attack.)

Asthma can’t be cured, but its symptoms can be controlled. Because asthma often changes over time, it is important that you work with your pharmacist and doctor to track your signs and symptoms and adjust your treatment as required. Understanding how your asthma affects you, or someone you care for can help you take control of your health.

Asthma management aims to keep a person completely free of asthma symptoms and prevent lung damage from asthma. It involves managing asthma triggers and the correct use of asthma medicines. During your inhaler technique check, your Amcal pharmacist will:

  • Assess your asthma symptoms and assist in identifying triggers.
  • Review your asthma management plan and asthma medications.
  • Check your inhaler technique and demonstrate correct method of use.

Book in for an Inhaler Technique Check to ensure you are using your asthma medications correctly so that you can take control of your asthma management and live symptom free.

What causes asthma?

The causes of asthma are unknown, although researchers mostly attribute it to genetic and environmental factors. You are more likely to have asthma if someone in your immediate family has asthma or suffers from allergic conditions such as eczema or hay fever.

A child’s risk of developing asthma is also greater if they were born premature or with low birth weight, if the mother smoked during pregnancy, if they live in a house with people who smoke, or if they have been exposed to air pollution or mould.

Adults can develop asthma over time from indoor air pollution at work or home, such as from fumes that irritate the lungs, or breathing in dusts that they’re allergic to.

Asthma triggers

Exposure to various irritants and substances that trigger allergies can trigger signs and symptoms of asthma. If you know and understand your asthma triggers you can learn how to avoid them. Common triggers include:

  • Airborne allergens, such as pollen, dust mites, mould spores, pet dander or particles of cockroach waste (allergic asthma)
  • Respiratory infections, such as the common cold
  • Physical activity (exercise-induced asthma)
  • Cold air
  • Air pollutants, such as cigarette smoke, bushfires, and traffic pollution
  • Certain medications
  • Strong emotions and stress
  • Other irritants such as cleaning products, perfumes, aerosol products and certain workplace chemicals

Identifying asthma

Asthma symptoms vary from person to person. You may have infrequent asthma attacks, have symptoms only at certain times — such as when exercising — or have symptoms all the time.

Signs and Symptoms

  • A dry cough, especially at night, early in the morning and with exercise or activity
  • Wheezing or whistling sound with breathing
  • Difficulty breathing — feeling breathless, even while resting, or being unable to finish full sentences before needing to take another breath
  • Chest tightness.

Types of asthma

When you are diagnosed with asthma, your treating health professional may refer to it as a type of asthma – usually relating to the frequency and severity of your symptoms. The four different asthma classifications are:

  • Mild intermittent: Many people have this level of asthma, which doesn’t interfere with daily activities. Symptoms are mild, lasting fewer than two days per week or two nights per month.
  • Mild persistent: The symptoms occur more than twice a week — but not daily — and up to four nights per month.
  • Moderate persistent: The symptoms occur daily and at least one night every week, but not nightly. They may limit some daily activities.
  • Severe persistent: The symptoms occur several times every day and most nights. Daily activities are extremely limited.

Treatment for asthma

If you are diagnosed with asthma, your doctor will work with you to create a treatment plan to manage your asthma symptoms and prevent asthma attacks. Asthma treatment usually depends on your age, asthma severity, and response to a given treatment option. Your doctor may adjust your treatment until asthma symptoms are controlled. Most asthma medicines are inhaled into the lungs. The three main types of asthma medicines are called relievers, preventers and symptom controllers.

  • Asthma relievers: These medications assist by relaxing the muscles around the outside of the airways, thereby opening the airways. Relievers work fast and the effects can last for around four hours.
  • Asthma preventers: Asthma preventers help prevent asthma signs and symptoms and keep your asthma under control. Preventer treatments reduce inflammation, make the airways less sensitive, reduce redness and swelling and help to dry up mucus.
  • Asthma controllers: This medicine helps to control asthma when a preventer medication isn’t enough. They help in a similar way to asthma reliever medications but last longer and are often combined with a preventer medicine into a single inhaler.

Using inhalers and spacers properly takes practice, so it’s important to learn the correct technique for getting the optimal amount of medicine. Speak to your Amcal pharmacist about the proper way to use your asthma inhaler.

Prevention - how to prevent asthma attacks

Asthma can’t be prevented entirely, but there are ways to reduce the risk of an asthma attack and live well. This includes:

  • Identifying and avoiding triggers.
  • Always carrying a reliever medication.
  • Taking preventative medication. Use your medications as instructed by your doctor, even when you feel well.
  • Making sure you are using the inhaler correctly, including using a spacer when required.
  • Following your asthma management plan.
  • Living smoke free: quit smoking and avoid second-hand smoke.
  • Managing allergies: asthma and allergies are closely linked, managing allergy triggers will help with your asthma.
  • Getting a flu vaccination: respiratory viruses are common triggers for asthma
  • Maintaining a health weight. Being overweight can worsen asthma symptoms

Frequently asked questions

There are factors that can increase the risk of developing asthma, these include:

  • Family history: If you have a parent with asthma, you are three to six times more likely to develop asthma than someone who does not have a parent with asthma.
  • Viral respiratory infections: Respiratory problems during infancy and childhood can cause wheezing. Some children who experience viral respiratory infections go on to develop chronic asthma.
  • Allergies: Having an allergic condition, such as atopic dermatitis (eczema) or allergic rhinitis (hay fever), is a risk factor for developing asthma.
  • Smoking: Cigarette smoke irritates the airways. People who smoke have a high risk of asthma. Those whose mothers smoked during pregnancy or who are exposed to second-hand smoke are also more likely to have asthma. 
  • Obesity: Children and adults who are overweight or obese are at a greater risk of asthma. People with obesity often use more medications, suffer worse symptoms and are less able to control their asthma than patients within a healthy weight range.

Poorly controlled asthma can have a negative effect on your quality of life. Complications may include:

  • Sleep disruption: Some asthma sufferers experience symptoms at night. This can lead to sleep deprivation and the inability to function well at school or work.
  • Limited physical activity: Asthma restricts physical activity and sports for some people. In addition, a lack of adequate exercise can increase the risk of developing other issues such as diabetes, high blood pressure, weight gain and depression.
  • Airway changes: Asthma can lead to chronic inflammation of the airway. Permanent structural damage can result; this is called airway remodeling. These changes can lead to loss of lung function, increased mucus production, and airway wall thickening.
  • Hospitalisation: Asthma can be a medical emergency, and accounts for around 1.3 percent of hospital emergency room visits. Severe asthma can also lead to respiratory failure.

An asthma action plan is a written, individualised worksheet. Your doctor will work with you to develop your asthma action plan which will outline when to take certain medications, including when to increase or decrease the dose of your medications based on your symptoms. It also provides guidance on when to call your healthcare provider or when to go to the emergency room. It includes a list of your known triggers and the steps you need to take to avoid them. Your doctor may also recommend tracking your asthma symptoms or using a peak flow meter on a regular basis to monitor how well your treatment is controlling your asthma.

A written asthma action plan is one of the most effective asthma interventions available in the management of asthma.

A spacer is a plastic tube that has a mouthpiece on one end. On the other end, a person can attach or insert their inhaler. An inhaler (“puffer”) is a device that delivers medication in small particles into the air so a person can breathe in the medicine. A spacer makes it easier to take asthma medication from the type of inhaler called an MDI (metered dose inhaler).

Spacers help the medication get straight to where it’s needed in your lungs, with less medication ending up in your mouth and throat where it can lead to irritation or mild infections, or in your stomach where it can cause some unwanted side effects. A spacer can also make it easier to coordinate breathing in and pressing your puffer.

Spacers should be used by:

  • All children – kids aged under 4–5 years will need a mask attached.
  • All adults taking a corticosteroid preventer medication using an MDI/puffer
  • Anyone taking a reliever medication (e.g. Ventolin) during an asthma attack.
  • Adults who have trouble coordinating the ‘press and breathe’ technique when using an MDI/puffer

An asthma flare-up is when asthma symptoms get worse compared to usual. Signs of an asthma flare-up can include:

  • Rapid worsening of shortness of breath or wheezing
  • Shortness of breath even when performing minimal physical activity
  • No improvement even after using a quick-relief inhaler (severe flare-up)

Some asthma sufferers describe asthma flare-ups as feeling as though you are breathing through a straw. They can happen rapidly or emerge gradually over hours or days. A serious or severe asthma flare-up needs urgent medical attention from a doctor or hospital emergency department, even for people whose symptoms are usually mild or well controlled. Call 000 immediately and follow your asthma action plan if you are having an asthma attack.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma are commonly mistaken for one another.

They result in similar symptoms, including wheezing, coughing, and trouble breathing. However, the two conditions are quite different.

COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is a lung disease caused by damage to the lungs from long-term exposure to irritants such as smoking, which affects lung airflow leading to impaired breathing, and is not fully reversible. Asthma is respiratory condition caused by an inflammatory reaction that leads to narrowed airways in the lungs. Often, asthma can be fully reversible with medical treatment and breathing can return to normal.

If you haven’t been diagnosed with asthma but are experiencing symptoms such as wheezing, coughing, or shortness of breath, you should let your doctor know. 

Once you’re diagnosed with asthma, you should see your doctor at least once a year, or more frequently if you have persistent symptoms after using treatments.

Call your doctor immediately if you:

  • Can’t perform daily activities.
  • Have a wheeze or cough that won’t go away after using a reliever.
  • Experience shortness of breath after minimal physical activity.

Just ask Amcal

90% of people with asthma are not using their inhalers correctly and you could be one of them.

Ask in-store for a free inhaler technique check and asthma consultation. Your Amcal pharmacist will direct you through a 6-step process to assess your technique and provide you advice on best asthma management strategies.

You are in safe hands at Amcal, and if you have any questions regarding asthma products and services, visit your Amcal pharmacy today.

For more information about asthma and asthma management speak to your Amcal pharmacist

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