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About Asthma

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Asthma is a serious health problem. Thousands of people in Britain have to face the challenges of this disease every day.

It affects people of all ages and often starts in childhood, although it can also develop for the first time in adults.

There’s currently no cure, but there are simple treatments that can help keep the symptoms under control so it does not have a big impact people’s lives.

Symptoms
Symptoms include severe shortness of breath that can stop you from doing the simplest tasks. Imagine not being able to carry your shopping or walk up the stairs or even play with your children. Some sufferers are unable to work again.

Other symptoms include:

  • Wheezing
  • Coughing
  • Chest tightness

The symptoms can develop right after exposure to a workplace substance. But sometimes symptoms appear several hours later, possibly at night. This can make any link with workplace activities unclear.

Other associated conditions are:

  • rhinitis (sneezing/runny nose)
  • conjunctivitis (itchy and inflamed red eyes).

Diagnosing Asthma

Asthma can usually be diagnosed from your symptoms and some simple tests. A GP will probably be able to diagnose it, but they may refer you to a specialist if they’re not sure.

Seeing a GP

The GP may ask:

  • what symptoms you have
  • when they happen and how often
  • if anything seems to trigger them
  • if you have conditions such as eczema or allergies, or a family history of them

They may suggest doing some tests to confirm if you have asthma.

Tests for asthma

The main tests used to help diagnose asthma are:

  • FeNO test – you breathe into a machine that measures the level of nitric oxide in your breath, which is a sign of inflammation in your lungs.
  • spirometry – you blow into a machine that measures how fast you can breathe out and how much air you can hold in your lungs
  • peak flow test – you blow into a handheld device that measures how fast you can breathe out, and this may be done several times over a few weeks to see if it changes over time

After you’re diagnosed with asthma, you may also have a chest X-ray or allergy tests to see if your symptoms might be triggered by an allergy.

Treatment

There’s currently no cure for asthma, but treatment can help control the symptoms so you’re able to live a normal, active life.

Inhalers, which are devices that let you breathe in medicine, are the main treatment. Tablets and other treatments may also be needed if your asthma is severe.

You’ll usually create a personal action plan with a doctor or asthma nurse.

This includes information about your medicines, how to monitor your condition and what to do if you have an asthma attack.

You can also create your own asthma action plan using a template from Asthma and Lung UK.

Asthma is usually treated by using an inhaler, a small device that lets you breathe in medicines.

The main types are:

  • reliever inhalers – used when needed to quickly relieve asthma symptoms for a short time
  • preventer inhalers – used every day to prevent asthma symptoms happening

Some people also need to take tablets.

Causes and triggers of asthma

Asthma is caused by swelling (inflammation) of the breathing tubes that carry air in and out of the lungs. This makes the tubes highly sensitive, so they temporarily narrow.

It may happen randomly or after exposure to a trigger.

Common asthma triggers include:

  • allergies (to house dust mites, animal fur or pollen, for example)
  • smoke, pollution and cold air
  • exercise
  • infections like colds or flu

Identifying and avoiding your asthma triggers can help you keep your symptoms under control.

Although asthma can normally be kept under control, it’s still a serious condition that can cause a number of problems.

This is why it’s important to follow your treatment plan and not ignore your symptoms if they’re getting worse.

Badly controlled asthma can cause problems such as:

  • feeling tired all the time
  • underperformance at, or absence from, work or school
  • stress, anxiety or depression
  • disruption of your work and leisure because of unplanned visits to a GP or hospital
  • lung infections (pneumonia)
  • delays in growth or puberty in children

There’s also a risk of severe asthma attacks, which can be life threatening.

Asthma Attacks

Asthma attacks kill 3 people in the UK each day. But many of these deaths could be avoided.

Every 10 seconds someone has a potentially life-threatening asthma attack. If people are on the right asthma treatment, their chance of having an attack is greatly reduced. It is also important that sufferers visit their doctor or nurse at least once a year for a check-up, and to discuss their treatment.

Symptoms of an asthma attack

Signs that you may be having an asthma attack include:

  • your symptoms are getting worse (cough, breathlessness, wheezing or tight chest)
  • your reliever inhaler (usually blue) is not helping
  • you’re too breathless to speak, eat or sleep
  • your breathing is getting faster and it feels like you cannot catch your breath
  • your peak flow score is lower than normal
  • children may also complain of a tummy or chest ache

The symptoms will not necessarily occur suddenly. In fact, they often come on slowly over a few hours or days.

What to do if you have an asthma attack

If you think you’re having an asthma attack, you should:

  1. Sit up straight – try to keep calm.
  2. Take one puff of your reliever inhaler (usually blue) every 30 to 60 seconds up to 10 puffs.
  3. If you feel worse at any point, or you do not feel better after 10 puffs, call 999 for an ambulance.
  4. If the ambulance has not arrived after 10 minutes and your symptoms are not improving, repeat step 2.
  5. If your symptoms are no better after repeating step 2, and the ambulance has still not arrived, contact 999 again immediately.

Never be frightened of calling for help in an emergency.

Try to take the details of your medicines (or your personal asthma action plan) with you to hospital if possible.

If your symptoms improve and you do not need to call 999, get an urgent same-day appointment to see a GP or asthma nurse.

This advice is not for people on SMART or MART treatment. If this applies to you, ask a GP or asthma nurse what to do if you have an asthma attack.

After an asthma attack

You should see a GP or asthma nurse within 48 hours of leaving hospital, or ideally on the same day if you did not need hospital treatment.

About 1 in 6 people treated in hospital for an asthma attack need hospital care again within 2 weeks, so it’s important to discuss how you can reduce your risk of future attacks.

Talk to a doctor or nurse about any changes that may need to be made to manage your condition safely.

For example, the dose of your treatment may need to be adjusted or you may need to be shown how to use your inhaler correctly.

Advice for friends and family
It’s important that your friends, work colleagues and family know how to help in an emergency.

It can be useful to make copies of your personal asthma action plan and share it with others who may need to know what to do when you have an attack.

You can photocopy your existing plan, or you could download a blank personal asthma action plan from Asthma + Lung UK and fill it in for anyone who might need a copy. Or you could take a photo of your action plan on your phone, so you can show or send it to others easily.

Occupational/ work-related asthma

Occupational asthma is caused by breathing in substances at work, like dust, chemicals, fumes and animal fur.

If you develop new asthma symptoms at work, or your childhood asthma comes back, you could have occupational asthma.

You may be at your workplace for a while before you notice symptoms. This is because it takes a while for your immune system to become sensitive to workplace triggers. But once you’ve become sensitive to a substance at work, it can trigger asthma symptoms the next time you come in contact with it – even if it’s just in small amounts.

What are the symptoms of occupational asthma?

Symptoms to look out for are:

  • Cough
  • Wheeze
  • Tight chest
  • Shortness of breath
  • Conjunctivitis (itchy, red, inflamed eyes)
  • Rhinitis (where the inside of your nose is inflamed with symptoms like a blocked, runny or itchy nose).

 

How is occupational asthma diagnosed?

As soon as you notice symptoms, see your GP.

Occupational asthma is confirmed or ruled out after a consultation with your GP. You will discuss your symptoms when you get them, your work, and medical history. You may also need some tests.

Questions your GP may ask you

Before you go, think about your answers to these questions. It will help you and your GP work out if you have occupational asthma or not.

Before you go, think about your answers to these questions. It will help you and your GP work out if you have occupational asthma or not.

  • Did your asthma symptoms start as an adult?
  • Have your childhood asthma symptoms come back since you started working?
  • Do your symptoms get better on days you’re not at work or when you’re on holiday?
  • Do your symptoms get worse after work or disturb your sleep after a work day?
  • Do you have a history of allergies which could increase your risk of allergies at work?
  • Do you smoke, which increases your risk of being sensitive to work triggers?
  • Do you have rhinitis? Occupational rhinitis is an early warning sign for occupational asthma.

Tests to help confirm a diagnosis

If your GP thinks occupational asthma is a possibility, they may suggest tests to confirm a diagnosis.

How is occupational asthma treated?

The good news is that if you catch it soon enough, the symptoms of occupational asthma can sometimes go away completely, as long as:

  • it’s diagnosed quickly
  • the cause is identified
  • you stop being exposed to the trigger

For some people, symptoms stop straight away. For others, it can take a bit longer. Even if your symptoms do go away, the substance that set them off will always be a trigger for you, so you’ll need to avoid it. This may mean avoiding similar workplaces.

Sometimes symptoms don’t go away completely or can go on for years, even after you’ve stopped being exposed to the trigger. This is usually because your occupational asthma wasn’t spotted soon enough, or your symptoms were more severe. See your GP or asthma nurse as soon as possible to get the advice and support you need to manage your asthma symptoms and lower your risk of symptoms and an asthma attack.

They may prescribe a preventer inhaler to deal with underlying inflammation and a reliever inhaler to control symptoms when they come on.

The longer you leave it, the more likely it is that you’ll develop long term asthma, even if you do remove yourself from the triggers or leave your job.

Which substances are high risk for occupational asthma?

Workers at higher risk of developing occupational asthma include cooks, hairdressers, mechanics and healthcare workers.

Occupational asthma is more of a risk where there are high levels of allergens or irritants at work, such as:

Occupational allergens

  • Flour dust and additives
  • Latex used in healthcare settings
  • Animal fur, skin and saliva, as well as dust from animal enclosures
  • Grain and poultry dusts – the most common cause of occupational asthma among agricultural workers
  • Vapours and particles from surgical techniques in hospitals

Occupational irritants

  • Chemicals used in car spray paints, or bleach used in hairdressing salons
  • Wood dust produced when machining or sanding
  • Fumes, mists and vapours from electronic, engineering or metal work, from adhesives, and from chlorine in indoor pools

How can I avoid losing my job if I get occupational asthma?

Some people who develop occupational asthma need a change of job role where they work, or even to change jobs altogether. It’s understandable to be worried about losing your job, or income, if your job role changes due to a diagnosis of occupational asthma.

But try not to let financial or employment fears hold you back from getting help with your symptoms, and confirming a diagnosis.

Talk to your employer, or your occupational health doctor or nurse if you have one, as soon as you notice symptoms. If you have a union representative, they may be able to support you. There may be things you can do to prevent you losing your job altogether. For example:

  • moving you to a different role so you’re not exposed to problem triggers
  • replacing any products or substances triggering your asthma with safe alternatives
  • providing you with PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) such as masks, so you can avoid inhaling the irritating substances or vapours.

Your employer’s responsibilities to you

Under the Health Safety at Work Act 1974 employers must minimise any exposure to hazardous substances in the workplace.

If your work involves you having contact with allergens or irritants:

  • risks should be explained to you before you start work
  • you should have a health check, including a breathing test, when you start employment
  • you should have health checks every year, to make sure you’re not developing asthma
  • your employer should notifiy HSE (the Health and Safety Executive) if you develop occupational asthma

Most employers will do what they can to help. If you don’t think that they are doing enough, you could try:

  • talking to your health and safety rep at work
  • contacting your trade union or professional body
  • contacting the local HSE office (or the local council environmental health department) for advice.

Compensation and benefits for occupational asthma

If you’re told that your asthma has been caused by your job, you should get advice quickly both about compensation and about benefits you may be entitled to.

The level of benefit you get will depend on the severity of your disability. You may be eligible for Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit or be eligible for Reduced Earnings Allowance.

It’s important to claim your benefit as soon as possible. Payments will only start from the day you claim, not the day you found out you had occupational asthma.

For more information or support, contact us on info@wpsafety.co.uk or 01268 649006.

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