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Asthma: Symptoms, causes and how to treat it

It's prevalent throughout the country, but why does New Zealand have such a high level of asthma and how can we prevent asthma attacks?

Woman having asthma attack
It’s not a ranking to be celebrated. In New Zealand, we have the second-highest rate of asthma in the world (after the UK). More than 600,000 of us have it, with half a million on medication to control it, and it is one of the most common reasons our kids end up in hospital.
Some of us only have occasional symptoms and get on with life without it causing too many problems. But others frequently have trouble with their breathing and don’t know what it is like
to feel 100% well. And in other cases, asthma attacks can be potentially fatal. In 2011, 69 Kiwis died as a result of asthma – that’s more than one a week.
Why do so many Kiwis have asthma? Nobody knows. For some reason, it is most prevalent in English-speaking countries, such as New Zealand, Australia, the US and Britain.
There are theories it could be due to reasons such as environmental factors, diet or exposure to infections, but the exact cause isn’t known. What we do know is that it often runs in families and many people with it also suffer from hay fever or eczema. While asthma affects around one in four children, it can also develop in adults, even when they’re middle-aged or older. Some kids seem to grow out of it by their teens, but it can return later on. Adult onset asthma is more likely to be permanent.
How do you know you’ve got it?
Asthma symptoms include:
• Wheezing
• Being short of breath
• Feeling a tightness in your chest
• Having a persistent cough.
You might have one of these symptoms or all of them. You might experience an attack where symptoms suddenly occur or have them all the time. These symptoms are due to the particularly sensitive airways in your lungs becoming tight, swollen or partially closed up due to certain triggers.
What can you do about asthma?
Asthma cannot be cured, but if you or your children have it, you’re likely to be able to better control it if you have a self-management plan in place. This is set up in conjunction with your doctor or other respiratory experts, and helps you to deal with your symptoms, along with providing strategies to put in place if you start feeling worse. The best ways of managing your asthma are:
• Knowing what sets off your asthma and how to avoid those triggers. Common triggers include:
• Allergies, such as to pets, dust mites, pollen
• Having a cold or the flu
• Cold weather
• Mouldy or damp homes
• Exercise
• Fumes, like from car exhausts, strong perfumes, aerosol cleaning sprays and cigarette smoke
• Some medications, including aspirin, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen, some beta blockers and some drugs prescribed for heart disease, blood pressure and eye conditions
• Hormonal changes due to menstruation or menopause
• Taking your medication as it has been prescribed
• Quitting smoking and avoiding other people’s cigarette smoke
• Using a peak flow meter. These devices show how fast you can blow out air and are a good way of monitoring the health of your airways
• Staying active. Although exercise can sometimes bring on an asthma attack, it also helps you to stay fit and healthy
• Having regular check-ups. See your doctor or other medical professionals who specialise in asthma to check that you’ve got things under control.
All puffed out
Exercise-induced asthma is not a lot of fun and knowing you could end up wheezing or struggling to breathe puts many people off being physically active. But exercise is important when you’ve got asthma because it improves lung capacity and blood flow. Research shows that people who are active usually have fewer asthma symptoms and cope better when they do have an attack.
When it comes to exercise, it is important to:
• Know your body. If you are having trouble controlling your asthma – for example, you are experiencing symptoms three or more times a week – you may need to get it sorted before you try to be too active. If you have a cold that will make breathing difficult, do not attempt to exercise until you are better.
• Take precautions against the cold. Breathing in cold air can trigger asthma attacks in some people. If you are out in cool air or exercising in an air-conditioned place, you may want to tie a thin scarf loosely around the lower half of your face, which will warm the air you breathe.
• Take slow deep breaths through your nose. Don’t hold your breath.
• Warm up before you start.
• Take a couple of puffs of your reliever medicine, such as Ventolin, to open up your airways before you are physically active.

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