Look around you. If you’re sitting in a small office or café, someone near you probably has asthma. In Australia, around 1 in 9 people (11%) will suffer from the disorder, and for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people the rate is even higher at around 18%*.
According to Kelsey Sharrad, Research Officer at UniSA, this rate has increased over the past 10 years, and there are several theories as to why.
“An increase in air pollution, a change in national diet, exposure to allergens and too much hygiene (not being exposed to enough germs can lead to impaired immune development) are all theories as to why we have seen the rates of asthma increase,” Kelsey says. “Also, our high standard of healthcare means we are able to easily detect asthma, and diagnose it properly.”
Asthma is a complex disease, characterised by chronic inflammation of the airways of the lungs. Exposure to a trigger (see below) can cause your airways to swell, making the muscles around them tighten. Then, your body pumps in more mucus to make it easier for you to cough up these offending particles (triggers), but this also further restricts your airways. Asthma can cause respiratory symptoms such as wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, and coughing.
Not all asthma sufferers experience the same symptoms. For example, there are a few unusual signs that you might have asthma. These include:
“Some of the symptoms are similar to what is experienced when you have hay fever or a cold,” Kelsey says. “So, it’s important to speak to your GP if you suspect you may be experiencing symptoms of asthma. Some people suffer from mild and intermittent symptoms, while for others it can be severe and persistent difficulty in breathing. For some sufferers, asthma is life-threatening.”
Asthma is triggered by different things in different people. For some it’s pet dander (the small skin particles shed by animals with fur and feathers), for others it is pollen, cold air, mould or exercise. The variety of triggers means there is often a peak in asthma symptoms in late summer and spring when there is pollen in the air, as well as in winter when the cold and flu season is at its worst.
“If you can identify your triggers then you can decrease your risk of exacerbation,” Kelsey says. “We do know that smoke irritates the airways and can lead to asthma exacerbation – so if you are a smoker, stopping this will unquestionably help.”
If you or a loved one has asthma, your first point of contact should be your GP.
“If asthma is diagnosed, it’s very important to establish a clear asthma management plan,” Kelsey says. “This will be tailored to your needs and can help you manage the disease. You may also need to learn how to use any prescribed medication (inhalers) correctly.”
An appropriate asthma management plan can help to control asthma symptoms, and reduce the burden of this chronic illness, so, if you think you have asthma, don’t put it off. See your GP today.