living with asthmaQ: I have just been diagnosed with asthma. What do I need to know about living with asthma?

A: First of all, you are not alone! According to Asthma UK, there are 5.4 million people in the UK who are living with asthma symptoms and are receiving treatment for it (including 1.1 million children under the age of 14). That's one person in 11 who are living with asthma in this country. People with asthma say that living with asthma can interfere with: work, social life, studying, exercise – and even talking! But asthma need not get in the way of living a full and active life. We suggest a three-way strategy towards managing the condition.

1. Allergen Avoidance when living with Asthma
Allergic asthma is the most common form of asthma and involves an over-reaction of the immune system to a normally harmless substance like house dust mite or pet dander (it is specific proteins within these substances which trigger the allergic response). Asthma may also be triggered by a number of non-allergic causes such as cold air. Living with asthma will be much easier if you can identify the triggers to your asthma because then you know what to avoid. Keeping a diary may help (what was happening, where were you just before you had an attack?) or it may be necessary to ask your doctor to refer you for skin prick or blood tests at an outpatient allergy clinic.

Triggers when Living with Asthma

Here are some of the most common triggers of asthma. Do you recognise any of them as being significant for your asthma?

  • Classical allergens such as house dust mite, cat dander (40 per cent of people with asthma are allergic to cats), pollen and mould spores
  • Workplace allergens (known as asthmagens) such as flour dust, wood dust, latex, chemicals and moulds
  • Irritants such as cigarette smoke, traffic fumes, sulphur dioxide from preservatives (e.g. sulphites in wines), nitrogen dioxide from gas cookers
  • Thunderstorms
  • Anxiety or stress
  • Cold or dry air
  • Strong odours
  • Exercise
  • Colds, flu and chest infections (which is why it is so important to get a flu jab every year if you have asthma)

When living with asthma, indoor triggers are often responsible for causing asthma symptoms. If so, you should work on improving the quality of the air in your home, office or school. At home, you can focus on measures such as:

  • Replacing bedding (a reservoir for house dust mite) with new bedding fitted with mite-proof covers and use asthma relief products for household cleaning
  • Replacing carpets (another reservoir) with hard flooring
  • Cutting down on clutter and soft furnishings that attract dust
  • Frequent damp dusting and vacuuming (using a vacuum with a High-Efficiency Particulate Air [HEPA] filter)
  • Invest in a leakage-free asthma air purifier fitted with high quality activated carbon
  • Ventilate your home – always open windows after showering, bathing or cooking

For school or office air quality, check with the head teacher or your health and safety representative and ask them what air purification measures they have in place. And for outdoor pollution, keep a close eye on pollution, pollen and weather forecasts and plan your activities accordingly (UK Daily Air Quality Index is at http://uk-air.defra.gov.uk/air-pollution/daqi).

2. Living with Asthma means Understand your Medication

Trigger avoidance is a key part of living with asthma, but using the right medication (and using it correctly) is just as important. Your doctor will have issued you with medications to make living with asthma easier. Briefly, there are two kinds – preventers (usually red, brown or orange) and relievers (blue). These are usually inhaled, although some people with asthma also use the medication in tablet form.

When living with asthma you have to make sure you understand exactly how to use your medications. There is useful advice at this link: www.asthma.org.uk/about-asthma/medicines-treatments/using-your-inhalers/

3. Living with Asthma means having a Plan

One of the best ways of bringing everything you need to do and think about together is to have a written personal asthma action plan, devised between you and your doctor. There is evidence that this approach is very effective in helping people who are living with asthma.

For more information, go to www.asthma.org.uk/about-asthma/controlling-your-asthma/resources-to-help-you-control-your-asthma/personal-asthma-action-plan/