Are you or your mum at risk?

By Leanne Koster · 4 Apr 2016

Did you know that some people develop asthma for the first time in later adulthood? There are a number of things that may cause this including exposure to environmental irritants, hormonal changes (especially for women) or viruses and other illnesses. Or for the very lovely Pat Curry from Melbourne, who recently spoke to me, it was because of a history of cigarette smoking. Pat, who is now almost 70 years old was diagnosed with asthma around 10 years ago, after having given up smoking almost 20 years earlier.

The first signs

Pat told me she had grown up with a father who was a chronic asthmatic so knew what asthma was all about having seen it first hand. Although she had eczema and allergies, she had never had any asthma symptoms as a child.

I asked Pat about when her symptoms first started - 

‘About 10 years ago, I noticed that I started getting short of breath when I was walking up even small inclines. Not being able to breathe is such a frightening thing. I didn’t know what was going on with me. After a while it starting getting worse, to a point where even sitting down watching TV, I had some trouble breathing.’

On visiting her GP not long after this, Pat saw a poster in the waiting room about asthma and spirometry tests.

‘I asked my doctor about these tests and requested an appointment with Judi, who conducted these tests. While that first spirometry test was really tough, it was such a relief to finally have a diagnosis and to have someone like Judi who could help me get my symptoms under control. The biggest shock was not being told I have asthma but being told that my years of smoking was most likely the cause.’

For many people like Pat, who first started smoking at a time when it was ‘cool’ and the long term health impacts were not really known, it is a hard diagnosis to come to terms with. Thoughts of ‘it’s all my fault and I the only one to blame’ are pretty common and can stop some people from getting the help they need. This was not the case for Pat. After her diagnosis she was given an asthma action plan and has been taking a preventer ever since. She goes to the gym every day and her asthma is now so well controlled that it has been several years since she has needed reliever medication.

Is there enough good asthma information out there?

The internet has great asthma information but as Pat experienced, you have to know what it is you are looking for, which is hard if you have only just found out you have asthma. ‘Our clinic has great information but without Judi (my asthma educator and nurse), I wouldn’t have known anything, let alone understood what I needed to do’.

Unlike Pat, most older people don’t mention breathing problems to their doctor because they think it’s just because of their age, their lack of fitness, being overweight or some other health problem. Undiagnosed asthma is risky though and it is important that you find out what is causing your symptoms.

The latest stats

Sadly, asthma can be life-threatening, and it’s older women who are most at risk. The latest report from the ABS shows that nearly half (45%) of all deaths due to asthma in 2014 were in women over 75.

So if you have asthma, and if you are a woman in this age group, it is important that you have regular check-ups to make sure your asthma is well managed.  Let your doctor know if you experience any shortness of breath, a whistling sound when you breathe or a tight feeling in the chest as these are all common symptoms of asthma. Give you doctor as much detail as possible about any symptoms you have and when they occur e.g. when you first wake up, if you exercise or when you are in certain situations. These clues can help with diagnosis and finding the cause, which will lead to developing good strategies that can help you live an active and healthy life – travelling, hanging with your grand-kids, swimming, gardening… all of those things that you love to do.

What else can you do?

We’ve prepared this handy checklist to show you what actions you can take:

  • Don’t ignore or dismiss breathing problems
  • See your doctor for regular asthma check-ups
  • Follow an up-to-date asthma action plan
  • Ask your pharmacist to show you exactly how to use your inhaler correctly
  • Tell your doctor and pharmacist about other medicines you are taking
  • Get your flu shot (it’s free for people over 65)
  • Quit smoking and avoid other people’s tobacco smoke

A big thank you to Pat for taking the time to have a chat to me this week, especially after having just flown home from her overseas holiday to London to visit her daughter.  And for being such a great example of what good asthma management looks like.

Leanne Koster
National Asthma Council Australia

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