Hands up if you have asthma. Hands up if you know someone who has asthma. If you haven’t put your hand up yet, you should probably do so anyway, because odds are you do actually know someone with asthma.
As of May 2019, there were at least 26,429 diagnosed chronic asthma sufferers in Malta according to research published by Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne. It is estimated that there are around 40,000 asthma sufferers in all.
It’s no secret that Malta is facing some severe air quality problems, and this is affecting a large amount of the population through the development of respiratory illnesses.
So what exactly is asthma?
In short: it’s a lung disease that causes difficulty in breathing. Asthma affects people of all ages and can be caused by genetic or environmental conditions. It usually develops during childhood, but can also appear during later adult years.
There’s no cure for asthma, but patients will adopt simple treatments into their daily routine to help manage and control symptoms. The most common treatment is the use of inhalers of different categories, such as, relievers and/or maintenance inhalers which are for daily long-term use.
In some more cases, a doctor may prescribe steroids to battle a severe attack. And extreme cases sometimes call for emergency hospitalisation. Roughly 10% of asthma patients suffer from severe asthma.
Severe asthma can have a number of underlying causes, including eosinophilic inflammation
Eosinophils are a type of white blood cell that, in some individuals with asthma, can cause inflammation in the lungs. This makes breathing difficult and increases the risk of an asthma attack or something called ‘exacerbation’. This is basically when you find yourself taking short, sharp breaths, an increase in coughing, wheezing and chest tightness, and a decrease in lung function.
Severe asthma can also be brought on by environmental factors, such as polluted air and an increase in dust and pollen.
Severe eosinophilic asthma has been classified as another type of asthma. Newer medications targeting this type of asthma have been developed but these are currently not available through the national health service. This means that patients with severe eosinophilic asthma need to rely on oral steroids to prevent asthma exacerbations.
But asthma affects more than just the respiratory system
It also comes with social and psychological impact. Asthma and anxiety are often linked together, for two main reasons:
- Nervous breathing and anxious behaviour can sometimes induce an anxiety attack,
- The hurried breathing one experiences during an asthma attack, can instill feelings of panic and anxiety in sufferers.
Plus, the reliance on medication (that comes with its own side-effects) and occasional hospitalisation can sometimes also have a negative impact on one’s mood.
Asthma can also stop people from joining in on some social activities, resulting in feelings of isolation
Events that require physical activity such as hiking, dancing, exercising and bike-riding are often out of the question for a person if they’re struggling with asthma. And people who struggle with their breathing often feel tired or fatigued, meaning that even the most basic activities can feel strenuous.
There are several steps you can take to help yourself, or someone else, when experiencing an asthma attack
The most important thing would be to get access to your quick-relief inhaler, but if that’s not possible there are several other steps you can take. You can read all about those steps here, but in summary:
- Sit upright
- Calm down
- Take deep, long breaths
- Get away from the trigger if possible
- Drink a hot, caffeinated drink
All of the above steps will help you or an asthma suffer to relieve symptoms, but you should alway seek emergency help by calling 112. Especially if the symptoms persist.
In particular, call for emergency help if any of these symptoms appear:
- you can’t speak except in short words or phrases
- you’re straining your chest muscles in an effort to breathe
- your shortness of breath or wheezing is severe, particularly in the early morning or late-night hours
- your lips or face appear blue when you’re not coughing
You can take an online test to measure your current level of control over your asthma and to see if you should be taking any further steps.