Asthma

Reporter: Andrea Burns

From the time her son Ryan was a baby, Anne Leaver had the feeling she'd only have her boy for a short time. Tragically, her mother's intuition was right. Ryan died following an asthma attack. He was just twenty two. "A whole lifetime of memories were taken from us in just one moment of complacency" And it's against complacency that Anne is now warning other asthmatics - particularly young men, like Ryan, who wrongly think "they know best" when it comes to the condition.

Anne says "he wasn't using a preventer, he wasn't seeing a doctor on a regular basis, it is imperative when you have a condition like asthma that you maintain regular appointments with the Dr that you have your asthma action plan written up, so you know what to do in an emergency" The asthma attack that killed Ryan occurred as he was running for a bus. He had ten Ventolin puffers in his bag, but couldn't get one in his mouth fast enough to save his life. "we had some extremely eerie conversations in the weeks leading up to his death , he came to visit me one day and I said to him Ryan, please go see a doctor, your chest is not good and he said oh mum you know, those asthma medications cost money and I said Ryan, a funeral costs more"

The Asthma Foundation's Piper Marsh says even people with mild asthma should get their GP to help them formulate what's called an asthma action plan. "An asthma action plan is a written set of instructions that tell you how to manage your asthma at home" One in six Australian children has asthma... one in nine adults. Every week, it kills six people in this country, yet many of those deaths are preventable. Anne says memories are all she has now. Ryan's death has hit Anne and his many friends, hard. Ryan's brother now an only child. Anne hopes others will learn from her son's mistake.

Why do people get Asthma
What are the main symptoms of Asthma
What is asthma

As we breathe, air moves in and out of the lungs through branching airways.

People with asthma have sensitive or "twitchy" airways. When they are exposed to certain "triggers" (e.g. cigarette smoke), their airways narrow making it hard for them to breathe.

The three main factors that cause this narrowing of the airways are:

  • The inside lining of the airways becomes red and swollen (inflamed).
  • The muscle around the airway tightens.
  • Extra mucus is produced.

Why do people get asthma in the first place?

We don't really know why some people have extra sensitive airways and others don't, but we do know that many people are born with a tendency to develop asthma. There is often a history of asthma, eczema or hayfever in brothers, sisters and parents or close relatives. Asthma can occur for the first time at any age.

There is also evidence that exposure to certain things, for example cigarette smoke during pregnancy and early childhood, increases the risk of developing asthma. For more information and smoking, pregnancy and asthma visit http://www.smokefreebaby.org.au/.

What are the main symptoms of asthma?
  • Wheezing - a high pitched raspy sound on breathing
  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Tightness in the chest

These symptoms vary from person to person, and from time to time within the same person. Some people have all the symptoms, while some may only have a cough or wheeze. Symptoms can also vary considerably in intensity.

What triggers asthma symptoms?

Once someone has asthma, symptoms are set off or made worse by "triggers". These can include:

  • colds and flu
  • cigarette smoke
  • exercise
  • inhaled allergens - e.g. pollens, moulds, animal dander and saliva and house dust mite
  • changes in temperature and weather
  • chemicals and strong smells
  • some foods and food preservatives, flavourings and colourings
  • certain drugs (e.g. aspirin)

However, often we don't know what triggers an episode of asthma.
It is recommended that wherever possible, known triggers should be avoided. Sometimes these triggers are difficult to avoid such as colds and viruses. Exercise, of course, should not be avoided and there are steps that can be taken to help prevent symptoms occurring when exercising. Check out our brochures or contact The Asthma Foundation of WA for more information.