Each year around summer as we gear ourselves up for bushfire preparedness, 2.7 million Australians with asthma set up their own plan of action to reduce the symptoms they experience as weather conditions change.
Professor Christine Jenkins is the Head of Respiratory and Clinical Professor at the University of Sydney. This week, she shares some of her insights with Women’s Agenda on the common symptoms and environmental triggers of asthma ahead of the upcoming bushfire season, and gives us some handy tips on how to stay safe.
1. How have asthma sufferers taken on extra burdens of self-care this year during COVID?
There have been concerns among people living with asthma that they may be more vulnerable to COVID-19, or that they may have more severe outcomes if they contract the virus. While we don’t know for certain how serious the increased risk is, this has led to people with asthma to be more vigilant of their symptoms and avoid environments where they might be more likely to pick up the virus, such as the doctor’s office.
However, there is still a significant proportion of people with asthma who don’t have an asthma management plan or don’t take their daily preventer medication every day, and these are essential to ensuring consistent management of the condition.
2. What are the different severities of asthma among Australian people and how does one know of one’s own level of it?
Asthma is typically classified in severity from mild, moderate, and severe. The vast majority of asthma sufferers have mild asthma, there are a few that have moderate asthma, and severe asthma is quite rare. You must consult your GP to determine what level of asthma you have and understand what the right type of medication is for you.
However, even those with mild asthma can suffer with symptoms if their asthma is poorly controlled, and medication is still needed to achieve good control.
3. Do men and women experience asthma differently? If so, how so?
We know there are some differences in experiences between men and women when it comes to asthma. Young women can experience a premenstrual worsening of symptoms, and many may have trouble from their asthma during pregnancy. It’s crucial for women to consider their asthma management during their cycle and when planning pregnancy to ensure optimal health for themselves and their baby.
However, the good news is we also know that women tend to be more proactive in their asthma management and are often better at recognising when their condition is deteriorating and act quickly when their asthma is not under control.
4. What are the common symptoms asthma sufferers should watch out for as we enter the bushfire season?
Look out for intermittent wheezing, coughing, and any unusual breathlessness. It may be first thing in the morning, last thing in the day, or while exercising – particularly outdoors, in polluted air.
Symptoms like eye watering and a runny nose are also typical of days with high pollution or strong fire smoke, although these symptoms happen to many people and not simply those with asthma.
Stay indoors if there are warnings, and close windows and doors so your home is not exposed to the atmosphere. Have emergency medication on hand and a written asthma action plan that you have discussed with your doctor, so you know what to do to manage or avoid an asthma attack.
5. What are some of the environmental triggers of asthma that sufferers should be particularly weary of?
For many people living with asthma, environmental triggers can exacerbate symptoms. This includes things like bushfire smoke, thunderstorms, cold air, pollen, mold around the house or mulch in the garden and household dust, which accumulates in carpet, furnishings and mattresses.
Pollen is another common trigger, so it’s important to know if you are allergic to grass pollen, as asthma can worsen suddenly during thunderstorms, especially over the summer months in combination with high pollen counts.
Each person with asthma should be aware of which environmental triggers are a problem for them and put steps in place to avoid or control them, like staying indoors with the windows and doors closed when there are high smoke or pollution warnings, wearing a mask when going outdoors, removing carpet in the home and where possible, ensuring that your home is well ventilated.
6. Can you give asthma sufferers a top four list of things to be extra careful of or mindful of this season?
- Avoid triggers where possible. Wear a mask if you need to and avoid exercising outdoors in order to reduce exposure on high-pollution days. Those that are allergic to grass pollen should watch during the months of December to March where there is a lot of thunderstorm activity.
- Prepared an asthma action plan. Talk to your doctor about an asthma action plan for those times when you anticipate your asthma could worsen, to avoid hospitalisation and know immediately what to do if you do get an asthma attack.
- Ensure you are using your medication correctly and taking it as regularly as prescribed. If you are taking your medication correctly but not seeing benefits, don’t delay – see a doctor for extra help or go to the nearest hospital if necessary.
- Don’t panic. Ahead of bushfire season, take proactive steps and take your preventer medication and have reliever on hand so your asthma is managed in the best possible way it can be.
7. Is there a website or app asthma sufferers can sign up to in order to keep up to date on how to keep them safe?
Asthma Australia (asthma.org.au) has many good resources and live updates on environmental triggers like thunderstorm asthma and bushfire smoke.
The key to staying safe is to have an up-to-date action plan and ensure you are taking the right medication. Asthma isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach and there is a range of very effective and safe treatments. It’s important to check in with your GP regularly to ensure your treatment best suits your condition.