By Stephanie Simons,
Lindo’s Pharmacy in Devonshire
Asthma is a well-known condition, yet there are still many of us who know very little about it. As this strange year comes to an end and the cold weather draws in, it’s important to get know asthma a bit better and how we can help people to manage it.
A lifelong condition in most cases, asthma causes the airways to react to certain triggers, such as pollution or weather. The muscles surrounding the airways tighten, the lining swells and sticky phlegm can build up – all of which cause the airways to narrow. Common symptoms include coughing, wheezing and breathlessness.
Severe asthma attacks prevent enough oxygen reaching the lungs, and three people die from this every day. However, research shows two thirds of these deaths could be avoided and, with the right treatment, most asthmatics can manage their symptoms and live full lives.
Everyone with asthma is different and requires tailored care to manage their symptoms. Most commonly, asthmatics use inhalers which get medicine directly into their airways so it can work as fast as possible. Patients are usually prescribed two inhalers: a preventative inhaler which is taken regularly to stop symptoms before they begin, and a reliever inhaler which is used if and when symptoms occur.
Another key part of treatment involves avoiding, or else managing, triggers – the circumstances which cause the airways to react. Again, triggers are unique to each asthmatic and can vary from allergies like pollen, to thunderstorms. Winter, however, sees the return of a very common trigger – cold weather.
When we breathe in cold air, especially on leaving a warm environment, it can cause the airways to spasm. While unpleasant for all, this can trigger severe symptoms and difficulty breathing in asthmatics. Experts recommend wearing a scarf over your nose and mouth for a few minutes before leaving the house, which lessens the shock of the cold air. Breathing through the nose instead of the mouth can also warm the air before it reaches the airways.
This year, of course, there is the added risk of Covid-19. Those with any underlying health condition are at greater risk of falling seriously ill from the virus, especially if they are older and/or have a weakened immune system. As a respiratory infection, Covid-19 is particularly dangerous for those with asthma, whose airways are already compromised.
That said, by following the expert guidance, you can give yourself the best chance of staying safe and well. Wash your hands regularly, stay at least two metres apart from those outside your household, and wear a mask in indoor public spaces like supermarkets. Asthmatics should be able to wear masks without difficulty, as oxygen supply isn’t compromised, but if you’re concerned about wearing one, do discuss this with a healthcare professional like your GP.
Your pharmacist is also great resource for navigating these strange times. There’s no need for an appointment and we’re open at times when you often can’t access your GP. If you or a loved one has asthma, we can help get you through the winter by discussing your medications, addressing any side effects, and/or answering any questions you may have. We can also assist with inhaler technique to make sure your medications have the best possible impact. These are difficult times for us all, but with the right guidance and treatment, there’s no reason asthmatics should struggle through the winter months. Emergency services are still operating as usual and, if you are experiencing unusual or distressing symptoms, do contact your GP or pharmacist as soon as possible.
Stephanie Simons is the head pharmacist at Lindo’s Pharmacy in Devonshire. She earned her Bachelor of Science in Pharmacy at Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and has been practicing for over 20 years. She is a registered pharmacist with the Bermuda Pharmacy Council and is a member of the Bermuda Pharmaceutical Association.