Updated: Jan 21, 2020
There is no better time than now to talk about Asthma.
Changing seasons as well as the recent bushfire outbreak can worsen asthma symptoms. During my medical career, I have seen many patients, children as well as adults with Asthma.
On many occasions, I have heard my patients say that they had asthma years ago. At times I wondered whether the term “asthma” is being used loosely. For instance, wheezing and asthma are often used interchangeably.
What is Asthma ?
In simple language asthma is a respiratory problem which can be explained as irritation to the airways. Medically, it is defined as long-term inflammation of the airways. The irritation causes the airways to narrow, which then leads to difficulty in breathing.
The inflammation can be due to internal or external factors. These factors are what we call allergens. Each time a person comes into contact with the allergens the symptoms begin, hence recurrence of asthma.
Why is asthma important?
Asthma is a life threatening condition if it’s not treated correctly. To achieve better control of asthma and to prevent exacerbations resulting hospitalisation asthma has to be managed well.
Some statistics around asthma are,
11% of the Australian population has asthma (about 2.5 million people)
In adults, women are affected more than men.
In children, boys are affected more than girls
In 2017-2018 there were 38,792 hospitalisations. In the year prior to that, there were 70,034 Emergency Department presentations
Can be life threatening. It led to death of 415 people in 2015 alone.
How Asthma affects you?
In addition to being a life threatening condition, Asthma can affect yous day-to-day life in many ways
Absence from work or school.
Stop you from playing sports or exercising
Affect your sleep and cause exhaustion.
What are the common Asthma symptoms?
Difficulty in breathing
Breathlessness on exertion
Intermittent audible wheeze or persistent wheeze when listened to on a stethoscope (auscultation)
Inability to even complete sentences in some severe cases
How is asthma diagnosed?
Asthma diagnosis is based on clinical symptoms, blood tests and breathing tests. People can have symptoms similar to asthma when they have just a chest infection. This doesn't necessarily mean that they have asthma.
On the other hand, I see patients who rely on ventolin inhaler (commonly known as puffer or blue puffer) without confirmed diagnosis of asthma. This can lead to poor control of symptoms and overall poor quality of life.
Treatment for Asthma
The treatment of asthma is done step wise depending on the severity.
If the symptoms are very mild and not bothersome then your doctor can start you on ventolin(salbutamol) inhaler (puffer) as and when you need it. If you are needing to use the inhaler frequently, then the treatment has to be stepped up.
If symptoms are regular, then your GP will start you on a preventer. There are a lot of different inhalers out there and you can discuss with your doctor about what suits you the best .
If symptoms are not well controlled, that is, if you are needing to use the puffer on top of the preventer more than twice a week, then the treatment needs to be reviewed.
There is also add on treatment available in the form of tablets .
How can your GP help?
You GP will be able to help at various stages of your Asthma management journey.
Firstly, they can diagnose presence of asthma and differentiate it from just wheeze. They can carry out a breathing test using Spirometry. They can also request for specific blood tests like the RAST test and full blood count.
When it’s clear that you actually suffer from Asthma, your GP will be your partner in managing the condition effectively with an asthma action plan.
An asthma plan from the GP will be very handy especially in emergency or for school.
So if you are or know someone suffering from any of the above mentioned symptoms, a visit to the GP is a good idea to diagnose Asthma early on and get better control of the condition.