Australians with asthma are being warned to be extra vigilant this winter, as hospitalisations due to asthma spike in June.
Higher death rates are reported in older people with asthma who are admitted to hospital in winter months. The risk of death due to asthma is higher in May and late winter for those aged 35 to 64.
Australia has one of the highest prevalence rates of asthma in the world, with 1 in 10 people, or over 2 million Australians impacted by the condition.
During winter, respiratory tract infections typically increase and the common cold is behind 4 out of 5 asthma flare-ups or attacks.
According to Dr Kerry Hancock, Chair of the General Practitioners’ Asthma Group of the National Asthma Council, people with asthma need to prepare for the winter onslaught and visit their GP for an asthma check-up and a flu vaccination to help protect them.
They also need to ensure that they take their prescribed preventer medicine and that they follow their written asthma action plan.
Many people think of asthma as being at its worst during spring because of high allergen levels. While this is true in some cases, winter is also a season where people with asthma and their families need to be aware of other triggers.
Respiratory viruses such as colds and influenza can worsen asthma in many people. Respiratory tract infection can be particularly troublesome for some children.
Both the cold outside air and heated indoor environments can also cause flare-ups for people with asthma.
Exposure to cold dry air is a common asthma trigger as it causes airways to tighten and can quickly lead to worsening asthma symptoms, but warmer air that is too dry can also trigger a flare-up. And for some people it is the change of temperature – going from a heated environment into the cold outside air – that causes a problem.
But snuggling up inside during winter is not without its own risks. Winter often keeps us inside, where indoor triggers such as dust mites, unflued gas heaters, pet allergens and smoke can also trigger asthma symptoms.
Wood smoke from fireplaces can cause problems for some, while there is evidence that unflued gas heaters increase asthma symptoms.
Winter asthma check list
It is important that Australians with asthma make sure their lungs are in the best possible shape for winter. The National Asthma Council Australia recommends the following key steps:
- Get your lungs checked — See your doctor for an asthma check-up before the cold and flu season sets in. Your doctor can check the health of your lungs and decide if you need to change your asthma medicines so you stay well over winter.
- Follow your asthma action plan — Together with your doctor, develop or update your personal written asthma action plan with instructions on how to manage your asthma over winter. This asthma plan can also be stored on the Asthma Buddy app which ensures you can act quickly wherever you are to prevent a mild flare-up from turning into a serious one.
- Protect yourself — Keep warm if cold air triggers your asthma. Avoid contact with anyone who is sick and control germs by washing your hands regularly. If you haven’t already had a flu vaccination ask your doctor about it.
- Use your medicines wisely — Tell your doctor if you have been using your reliever puffer more than two days a week or are having asthma symptoms at night. These are important signs that your lungs may not be in the best condition for winter colds and flu. If you have been prescribed a preventer medicine make sure you use it – even if you feel well.
- Take extra care if you are over 65 — Colds and flu can hit extra hard in seniors with asthma so ask your doctor about flu and/or pneumonia vaccinations. Make sure you’re taking your medicines the best way – ask your pharmacist or nurse to check you’re using your puffer or inhaler device correctly.
Information on the Asthma Buddy app and asthma action plans are available at the National Asthma Council Australia website here.
Australians can also make an informed choice about products and services that may reduce the impact of their asthma and allergies by visiting Sensitive Choice, a community service program from the National Asthma Council Australia here.
Do you get your lungs checked prior to winter? Please share in the comments below.