Peak in asthma deaths sparks winter survival guide

December and January are deadliest months

December and January are the deadliest months of the year for people with asthma, figures for the past decade have revealed, sparking the release of a winter survival guide from Asthma UK for the 5.4 million people in the UK with the condition.

Plummeting temperatures and an abundance of cold and flu viruses are two of the dangers that put people with asthma at heightened risk of a life-threatening asthma attack during the cold, damp winter months.

Fatality figures* collated for the ten years between 2006 and 2015 reveal that more people die of asthma attacks in January compared to any other month of the year, with an average 154 deaths. This is closely followed by December with an average of 141 deaths. Compare this with the summer month of August, which averaged 73 deaths over the same ten-year period, and the stark reality of the danger that winter poses to people with asthma becomes clear.

Despite the risk, there are a number of steps people with asthma people can take to keep themselves safe during the cold and damp winter months, the most important of which is taking their medication as prescribed.

Dr Andy WhittamoreDr Andy Whittamore, Asthma UK’s Clinical Lead and in-house GP, said: “During the winter people are at greater risk of having a life-threatening asthma attack. We think this is mainly because of the falling temperatures and abundance of cold and flu viruses. In fact, around 90% of people with asthma have told us cold and flu viruses make their symptoms worse and around 75% of people find that cold air can trigger an asthma attack.

“Despite this, there are a number of ways people can keep themselves safe from asthma attacks this winter. First and foremost, it is vital that people take their medications as prescribed by their GP. Regular use of the preventer inhaler builds up protection in the airways over time, so that when someone encounters an asthma trigger, they are less likely to have an attack. It is also a good idea for people to check with their GP or asthma nurse to see if they are using their inhaler correctly.

“The humble scarf can also be a good defence against asthma attacks. Cold air is a common asthma trigger, so by wrapping a scarf loosely around their mouth and nose, people with asthma can warm up the air before they breathe it in, which could potentially save their life. Also, it is a good idea to keep warm and dry and try and breathe through your nose rather than your mouth, as your nose is designed to warm the air as you breathe it in.

“There’s good evidence to show that use of a written asthma action plan makes people four times less likely to be admitted to hospital for their asthma as well as reducing their daily symptoms. For those who don’t already have one, actions plans can be download from Asthma UK’s website.”   

Monthly UK average asthma deaths 2006-2015 

January

154

February

117

March

113

April

106

May

86

June

83

July

79

August

73

September

75

October

90

November

97

December

140

* Figures sourced from the Office for National Statistics (England and Wales), the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency and the National Records of Scotland.

Winter asthma survival guide

Here are Asthma UK’s top tips to keep your asthma at bay this winter

Take your asthma medications as prescribed

People with asthma say wearing a scarf over their mouth and nose and keep asthma attacks at bayYour preventer inhaler builds up protection in your airways over time so your lungs become less sensitive to asthma triggers like cold air. It’s a good idea to check with your GP or asthma nurse that you are using your inhaler correctly.

Carry your reliever inhaler (usually blue) with you at all times

Use your reliever inhaler as soon as you notice asthma symptoms, such as coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath and tightness in the chest. You should feel a difference to your breathing within a few minutes. However, if you are using your reliever inhaler more than three times a week or if your asthma is waking you up at night, it is not well managed and you should see your GP.

Use a written asthma action plan

An asthma action plans helps you manage your medication and your symptoms. Using one makes you four times less likely to be admitted to hospital for your asthma.

Stay warm and wear a scarf around your nose and mouth

Cold air is a common trigger of asthma attacks, so wrapping a scarf loosely around your mouth and nose will warm up the air before you breathe it in.

Breathe through your nose

Your nose is designed to warm up the air you breathe before it hits your lungs, potentially stopping cold air triggering an asthma attack

Be wary of indoor asthma triggers too

If you avoid going outside in the winter, as many people with asthma say they do, you may also be exposed to more indoor air pollutants like dust mite droppings and fumes from cooking or cleaning products.

Ask you GP about the flu jab

90 per cent of people with asthma say that viruses such as colds and flu can trigger asthma symptoms. The flu vaccine is an add-on treatment that is strongly recommended for some, but not all people with asthma. It is usually given between September and early November, but ask your GP or asthma nurse to find out if it is suitable for you.

Anyone looking for more information on managing their asthma this winter can visit www.asthma.org.uk/winter or call the Asthma UK Helpline, which is staffed by expert asthma nurses, on 0300 222 5800.

Case study - Ruth Smith

Ruth Smith and her son Caleb

Ruth Smith from Leeds has been battling severe late onset asthma since she was diagnosed at the age of 30 – during winter cold air can stop her in her tracks.

For the mother of one, even the short walk to and from the car in the morning to take her seven-year-old son Caleb to school puts her at risk of a life-threatening asthma attack.

Ruth, 39, lived an active lifestyle before being diagnosed with asthma which had a huge impact on her life. She found her ability to exercise decreased and was constantly tired and coming down with colds and chest infections. In 2013, after numerous hospital visits, Ruth was nearly placed into an induced coma just to be able to breathe.

Despite this, she is determined to be as active as possible, even running a half marathon this year, but she has to take extra care on cold days.

Ruth said: “Going for a walk on cold winter days can be a struggle. The cold air stops me there and then. But the most dangerous time of the day for me is first thing in the morning. If I wake up before the heating turns on, it can be difficult to breathe and I worry about having an asthma attack. I always try and have the heating on but that isn’t great for keeping the bills down.”

In addition to always having her relief inhaler on hand, which she uses frequently in the colder months, Ruth wears a buff – a type of protective bandana commonly used by outdoor enthusiasts and runners – around her neck and mouth for warmth and protection to keep her symptoms at bay and ward off asthma attacks.

Ruth is dedicated to raising public awareness of how asthma affects people in their daily lives, and how serious the condition can be if not controlled. She has organised various events in her local community to help raise awareness and funds to fight asthma. She ran the London Marathon this year and is training to compete in next year’s event, with all fundraising proceeds to go to Asthma UK.

Ruth’s next fundraising event will be held on Friday 25 November 2016, from 7pm to 10.30pm at Stanningley Rugby Club, The Arthur Miller Stadium, Coal Hill Drive, Leeds LS13 1PA. Tickets £3 each, with all proceeds from the night going to Asthma UK

www.facebook.com/offtoLondonforAsthmaUK

Notes to editors:

For more information, please contact the Asthma UK media team on mediaoffice@asthma.org.uk, 020 7786 4949 (during office hours) or 07951 721393 (outside of office hours).

The Asthma UK Data Portal is a new online tool for journalists to access the latest figures and trends in asthma outcomes across the UK. Information on asthma facts and statistics can also be found on our website.

About Asthma UK

  • In the UK, 5.4 million people are currently receiving treatment for asthma: 1.1 million children (1 in 11) and 4.3 million adults (1 in 12).
  • Every day, the lives of three families are devastated by the death of a loved one to an asthma attack, and tragically two thirds of these deaths are preventable.
  • Asthma UK’s mission is to stop asthma attacks and cure asthma. We do this by funding world leading research, campaigning for improved care and supporting people to reduce their risk of a potentially life threatening asthma attack.
  • The Asthma UK Helpline is open weekdays from 9am to 5pm on 0300 222 5800.
  • For more information about asthma please visit www.asthma.org.uk