Asthma & Preparing an Asthma Action Plan

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What is asthma?

Asthma is an upper respiratory condition that affects peoples’ airways when exposed to certain triggers. This results in breathing difficulties and/or other symptoms such as coughing, breathlessness, chest tightness and wheezing. In 2020-2021 alone, just under 2.7 million Australians experienced asthma symptoms. (ABS)  [1]

An asthma flare-up is known as an asthma attack, this is where symptoms are more severe than usual and often described as ‘trying to breathe through a straw’. In a situation where a serious or severe asthma flare-up occurs, a patient will require urgent medical attention from a doctor or hospital emergency department. This is necessary even if the person usually only experiences mild or well-controlled symptoms before attack onset.[2]    

Immediate attention is required due to the presence of a high-risk factor, as asthma can be a fatal condition. In 2020 there were 417 asthma related deaths [3] which statistically, is far too high considering the availability of medically approved preventative measures.

To assist in driving down this statistic it’s very important to be aware of asthma symptoms, how they look and sound, and to have an up-to-date asthma action plan to help control outcomes.

Asthma symptoms:

  • an ongoing cough
  • shortness of breath
  • chest tightness
  • wheezing
  • disturbed sleep resulting from asthma symptoms (as described above)

How do I know if my asthma is not controlled?

Be on the alert if you experience any asthma symptoms or are woken at night by asthma more than twice a month. When it does present and you require your reliever medication [ET1] more than twice a week, or you use oral steroid tablets more than two times per year, your asthma IS NOT CONTROLLED. This means you will need to change your management to align with your ASTHMA ACTION PLAN or see your doctor.

Asthma Management – Asthma Action Plan

It’s estimated that only around 34% of asthmatics have an action plan in place for their condition (ABS).  An up-to-date Action Plan is an essential tool to have on hand to keep asthmatics safe. After an examination your doctor should write a plan in consultation with you; it can quickly help to identify how severe the flare-up is and contains clear instructions to follow when symptoms are not controlled. It’s vital that the plan is shared with your family and support network (i.e. school or workplace) as a course of action if symptoms get worse or if you do experience a severe asthma attack and need to go to hospital.

How often should I review my Asthma Action Plan?[4]

  • Adults – every 12 months
  • Children – every 6 months
  • Pregnant women – as soon as you find out you are pregnant[5]
  • Ongoing symptoms such as wheezing, coughing or shortness of breath may represent inadequate asthma control, and indicate your Asthma Action Plan should be reviewed.

Allergic Rhinitis (hay fever) and Asthma

Over 80% of asthmatics suffer from both asthma and allergic rhinitis (hay fever). Allergic rhinitis is a medical condition caused by allergies when breathing in various particles through the air. Symptoms include swollen inflamed nose mucosa, an itchy and/or irritated nose and back of throat, watery eyes, a blocked or runny nose, sneezing and disturbed sleep.

We recommend that hay fever be reviewed and managed at the same time as your asthma, your GP can also complete this assessment as an additional form. [6]  It has been shown that when hay fever is inadequately controlled it may result in poor asthma control.

Thunderstorm asthma also presents serious complications for asthmatics with hay fever and ryegrass allergies. For those who are allergic to ryegrass pollen, inhaling the small particles can trigger a severe asthma attack. Preventative and prescribed medication is commonly used to control asthma throughout the trigger season, as opposed to simply managing symptoms.[7]

While thunderstorm asthma can affect asthmatics, you don’t have to be asthmatic to have severe symptoms. You can suffer from thunderstorm asthma if you:[8]

  • Have or ever had asthma
  • Experience hay fever in spring
  • If you feel tight in the chest, wheeze, cough or are short of breath during the pollen season – you may suffer from undiagnosed asthma

Ways to stay safe

To remain safe it’s recommended that asthmatics continue to use appropriate medications prescribed by a doctor. There are a variety of preventative medicines including inhalers available for daily use, and others for symptomatic relief. Australian research has shown that inhaled corticosteroids are effective in protecting people from severe asthma attacks.

When the pollen/thunderstorm season arrives during spring or summer, sufferers may need more protection than the usual blue or grey puffer issued to asthma patients. Before this happens, check with your doctor to assess your asthma and review your Asthma Action Plan.

How to remain aware and control your asthma

  • Do not smoke.
  • Create a hay fever Action Plan with your GP. Review and identify your allergies and try to avoid your allergens.
  • Symptoms can be treated effectively with corticosteroid nasal spray and salt rinses.
  • In spring and summer months, always carry your reliever inhaler with you for emergencies. Stay updated with weather forecasts – including pollen counts, so you know what may be blowing your way.
  • If storms and wind gusts are predicted, asthmatics and those with pollen allergies are advised to stay inside and close the windows.
  • Switch air conditioners to the recirculation mode [9] as a further precaution.
  • If you have asthma and want to improve your quality of life, book an appointment with your GP for a review now.

The ABS (2021) reported that those living with asthma rated their health more poorly than the rest of the population[10]. You can improve the management and your quality of life by consulting with a GP regarding your asthma. As symptoms and needs will change regularly over time, it’s advisable to develop a good relationship with a GP who will understand your condition and advise on specific health needs.

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[1] https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/asthma

[2] https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/asthma

[3] https://asthma.org.au/about-asthma/understanding-asthma/statistics/

[4] https://asthma.org.au/treatment-diagnosis/live-with-asthma/asthma-action-plan/

[5] https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/asthma-and-pregnancy