Asthma - it's nothing to be wheezed at

Asthma myths busted

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Common asthma myths busted

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Wheeze or not, it could be asthma. That's the message from Asthma Australia which is hoping to bust some myths about this common condition which affects around one in 10 around the country.

Around 2.7 million Aussies live with asthma and yet 90 per cent don't know how to use their inhaler properly, with older people most at risk.

In 2018, 389 people died from asthma and just over 38,000 were hospitalised. And yet, 80 per cent of asthma hospitalisations are preventable.

GP and Asthma Australia Professional Advisory Council member, Tim Senior, said while wheezing can be an asthma symptom, this is not always the case.

"Wheeze is intuitive in asthma, the noise reminds us the airways are tight and narrow, it helps us explain what's happening," said Dr Senior.

"However, not wheezing means people needs to look out for other symptoms like coughing, tight chest, and shortness of breath.

"The truth is wheeze is just one symptom of asthma, and while common, not everyone with asthma will wheeze. People can experience an asthma attack without any signs of wheezing, so we need to be alert to all asthma symptoms."

For many people with asthma, this 'wheezy myth' is not only a cause of frustration, but also potentially deadly, which Catherine Field discovered when she took her daughter to the doctor.

"My child is not always an audible wheezer - she is a silent sufferer," she said.

"One time, we were with our GP and she was having a severe attack, so they called an ambulance.

"When they arrived, she wasn't wheezing and they assumed she was ok, this was until they listened to her lungs."

Another misconception about asthma is that it is only developed in childhood. In fact adults of any age can develop the condition, even if they did not have asthma as a child.

Conversely, some people have asthma during childhood, but later may 'grow out' of it and have very few or no symptoms as adults.

Pharmacy Guild president, Trent Twomey, said some triggers for asthma are clear and indoor and outdoor pollution (including moulds, gases, chemicals, particles and cigarette smoke) can increase the chances of developing asthma.

Athletes have also been found to develop asthma after very intensive training over several years, especially while breathing air that is polluted, cold or dry.

Inhaler misuse

"People with asthma who are not controlling their condition are putting themselves at increased risk of something far worse happening than night waking or struggling with exercise," Adjunct Professor Twomey said.

He said while at present there is no known cure for asthma, with the right knowledge and good management, most people with asthma can lead full and active lives.

"This management usually includes use of medicines some of which are delivered through the use of an inhaler.

"However, surprisingly recent research has shown that more than 90 per cent of people with asthma do not use their inhaler correctly with the result being that they are not getting the full benefit of their medicines and may be suffering unnecessarily."

Studies show that regardless of the type of inhaler device prescribed, patients are unlikely to use inhalers correctly unless they receive clear instruction, including a physical demonstration. Also, the risk of misusing inhalers is particularly high in older and more debilitated patients.

"It is important therefore to be sure that you are using an inhaler correctly and the easiest way to check this is to ask your community pharmacist," he said.

"Your pharmacist can check that you are using the inhaler to the best possible effect and also show techniques and equipment to help improve how you are using the inhaler to manage your condition. For some people equipment like 'spacers' and 'face masks' can make inhalers easier to use.

He said another reason to speak to your pharmacist about your asthma management is that some medicines have been shown to trigger an asthma attack or to worsen the condition.

Medicines which asthma sufferers should be alert for include some complementary medicines and some non-prescription medicines including aspirin.

He said while aspirin-induced asthma is identified in only a small number proportion of cases asthma sufferers may be advised to avoid aspirin and the other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines if they suffer from this form of asthma.

"Some complementary medicines can be a problem and in particular royal jelly and echinacea have been identified as products best avoided by asthma sufferers."

Asthma Australia chief executive, Michele Goldman, urged Australians to listen to people to better empathise with their experience.

"Asthma is a complex condition and people experience symptoms differently," Ms Goldman said.

"Take the time this year to listen to your friends and family with asthma to better understand what asthma is like for them.

"Ask them to explain their triggers and common symptoms and find out if there anything you can do to help - you might be surprised by their response. People can only breathe without air for minutes, so when having an asthma attack any delay can be deadly."

  • People who are experiencing difficulties with their asthma can call an asthma educator on 1800 278-462 for free confidential phone support and information or visit their doctor or pharmacist.
  • You can also visit asthma.org.au
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