Changes in your breathing? When to talk to a professional about asthma

One in eight Australians over 65 are currently living with asthma and a leading expert tells Starts at 60 the best ways to manage this condition. Source: Getty

While many people think of asthma as a young person’s conditions, the fact is one in eight Australians over 65 are currently living with the condition – and some may not even know it.

Statistics show 5,000 people aged over 65 were hospitalised for asthma between 2015 and 2016, making up 11.9 per cent of all asthma hospitalisations.

Diagnosis is key to managing the condition, but surprisingly many people haven’t been properly diagnosed and are unnecessarily living with breathing difficulties. It’s estimated that around half of those aged over 75 with asthma are unaware they have it.

This is a figure that’s extremely worrying according to Karyn Oster, Asthma Educator with Asthma Australia, who recommends anyone with breathing difficulties goes to their GP for a lung function test.

“If they know they have asthma, if their symptoms are happening more than twice a week, that’s a sign that asthma is not under control,” Oster says. “That’s a point where they should go to a doctor and if they don’t already have one, they should ask for an asthma action plan so they can start managing those symptoms at home.”

Having an asthma action plan in place is vital for those living with the condition, but something only 26 per cent of over-65s have.

“That’s a really low number. It’s quite concerning,” Oster says.

Difficulty breathing isn't a normal sign of ageing.
Difficulty breathing isn’t a normal sign of ageing. Source: Shutterstock (Stock image used)

An action plan helps a person with asthma recognise a flare-up or worsening symptoms and advises them on what to do when this happens. The plans are individual, written by a GP and include information about doses and frequencies of medication, how to adjust treatment in the event of an exacerbation, managing severity of attacks, identifying warning signs and how exactly to seek urgent medical help if needed.

When it comes to everyday prevention, medication is essential for many asthmatics. Asthma treatments have come leaps and bounds in the past 20 years and these days there are new medications that work even for people who haven’t had any luck with treatments in the past. Inhalers are the most common form of preventative asthma medication (and there are many different types on the market).

Preventative treatments typically help to reduce airway sensitivity, redness and swelling and dry up mucus, while relievers are fast-acting medication to relieve symptoms during a flare-up.

Read more: How to manage asthma symptoms as a Baby Boomer

Lifestyle is also a major contributor to asthma sensitivity and experts advise quitting smoking and maintaining a healthy weight to help reduce the risk of flare-ups. Other environmental factors such as cold dry air, dampness in homes and fumes from wood-fire heaters or gas heaters can also affect your risk of an asthma attack and contribute to breathing difficulties.

It's important to understand asthma first aid.
It’s important to understand asthma first aid. Source: Asthma Australia.

One of the biggest obstacles for those living with asthma is exercise. For some people exercise triggers flare-ups and asthmas attacks, but experts actually recommend physical activity as a healthy, natural way to improve lung function and prevent an attack.

Oster says health experts can advise how to exercise safely on an individual basis as everyone’s tolerance levels will be different.

“There’s no types of exercise that have been shown to be better or worse for people with asthma. Anything they enjoy and can put into their regular routine is good,” Oster says. “Some kind of physical training that’s strength-based is something to include as well.”

Unfortunately, as much as we’d like to eliminate all asthma flare-ups and attacks it’s not always possible and when breathing difficulties strike, knowing asthma first aid is vital.

The first port of call is to sit up straight, shake your puffer and take four separate breaths from the puffer. If you have one available, use a spacer device attached to the puffer as this helps the medication go straight to where it’s needed in your lungs.

Wait for four minutes and take four more puffs if required. If this doesn’t work and you’re still struggling to breath, an ambulance should be called.It’s important to understand asthma first aid.

There are different levels of asthma flare-ups, with minor difficulties breathing and coughing or wheezing common in mild and moderate flare-ups.

“At that level, all you would need to do is follow your asthma action plan or your asthma first aid,” Oster says.

In severe cases, people will have difficulty speaking a full sentence in one breath, and may be coughing, wheezing and feeling a tightness in their ribs and neck.

“Those are all really severe signs [of an attack] and if those occur, they should call an ambulance straight away and then do their asthma first aid,” Oster explains.

Do you have difficulty breathing? Have you been diagnosed with asthma?

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