We may have a stereotype of what asthma is and what a ‘sufferer’ goes through, but things are changing — though it can still prove deadly, writes Aileen C O’Reilly.
Ask the majority of people about asthma and they’ll say “it’s that thing where you can’t breathe sometimes isn’t it? You need inhalers.” It might shock you to know it’s a tad more serious than that.
In 2001 actress Charlotte Coleman, best known for her part as Hugh Grant’s flatmate in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral, died, at the age of just 33, from a severe asthma attack — far from being a rare or strange occurrence, it is all too common and worryingly on the increase.
According to the latest statistics from the Asthma Society of Ireland, one person per week dies from an asthma attack.
Asthma is a chronic condition that affects the airways, the small tubes that carry air in and out of the lungs. In an asthma sufferer the airways become oversensitive, meaning they react to things that wouldn’t usually cause a problem, such as cold air or dust.
When the airways react to a substance, the muscles of the tube walls tighten up, making them narrow and leaving little room for air to flow in and out (thus the feeling of being unable to breathe).
The lining of the airways then gets swollen (just like your nose during a cold) and sticky mucus is produced which clogs up the breathing passages.
Some 470,000 people in Ireland suffer from this chronic lung disease and instances of uncontrolled asthma, where the sufferer is medicating either insufficiently or incorrectly, are unfortunately on the increase.
I’m at the house of Sarah O’Connor, chief executive of the Asthma Society of Ireland, herself an asthma sufferer for many years, and we’re joined by Ruth Morrow, one of Ireland’s leading educators in asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and this country’s first advanced nurse practitioner in primary care.
As with Sarah, Ruth’s chief goal is to educate and empower asthmatics to self-manage their condition properly. She paints a stark picture of the untold damage uncontrolled asthma can do.
“There is a visit to A&E by a person suffering from an asthma attack every 26 minutes,” she says, “and one death a week from an uncontrolled asthma attack.”
In fact in the last three years, the number of deaths per year from asthma in this country has risen from 50 to 70. What’s even more shocking, according to Ruth, is that 90% of these deaths are preventable.
“Of the 470,000 people with asthma in this country over 60% have uncontrolled asthma and that’s where the problem lies. There are 20,000 admissions a year to A&E and 50,000 attendees at out-of-hours services.
“What many asthmatics don’t realise is that if you have an asthma attack, then you absolutely need to be seen by a health professional and you need to be seen again the next day as a secondary attack generally follows.
“Also most sufferers, while they may get their winter flu jab, are unaware that they need to get it earlier than non-asthmatics and that they also need pneumonia shot too.
Sitting in the warm and cosy kitchen of Sarah’s Rathmines home, where she’s busily running about making tea and coffee and proffering an endless supply of chocolate bars it’s hard to believe the vibrant 30-something suffers from anything at all. In the adjacent room an open fire is burning — the house is asthma friendly — is anything but cold or clinical.
Then again Sarah is anything but the jaded wheezing stereotype I know I myself had of somebody suffering from the condition — “suffering” being the operative word.
Thanks to her daily preventative medications and the by now ingrained precautions she takes with her surroundings, she has not had to use the “blue puffer” (the one we’ve all seen Leonard from The Big Bang Theory dragging on) in a very long time.
She also hasn’t suffered from any form of chest infection for over two-and-a-half years either — in fact she has to spend several minutes trying to recall when she last did need to use her inhaler. If anything this woman appears to be the new “poster girl” for those suffering from the condition.
Diagnosed with asthma at aged 8, Sarah, who is passionate about educating and empowering people with asthma to live healthy, unaffected lives, is happy to admit she has never suffered a full-blown attack.
“I never hoover and I never dust the house myself — I get it done,” she says with a wink. “I realise that makes me sound like a total princess but it’s only practical in my case.
"The way the dust affects my breathing and my eyes is extremely painful and could leave me in trouble for days afterwards.
“My mattress is regularly turned and my pillows hoovered — with asthma you learn pretty quickly what you can and can’t do and you work around it.
“Regularly decluttering and properly ventilating the rooms you live in is hugely important as it helps to maintain a dust-free environment. I also keep dehumidifiers and air purifiers handy as the air in your home is five times more polluted than the air outside.
“Asthma is a very manageable condition,” says Sarah after running up and down the stairs around three times looking for a bright pink feather duster for the photographs “I’m living proof of that.
"The key to it is prevention and control. If you’re having to resort to using your inhalers during the day then you’re already not managing it properly.”