More than five million people in the UK today have asthma – so the odds are that you live, work, travel or study with at least one of them.
If you want to support a partner, family member, friend or colleague with asthma, we’ve asked lots of people with asthma what they find helpful, and what they don’t, and how people around them can give support.
This is what they told us:
1. “Find out about my experience of asthma”
Everyone's asthma is different. People have different triggers and symptoms. And their symptoms can vary from day to day, over the course of a year, or at different times in their life.
Some people with asthma can go for months without getting any symptoms, while others get symptoms every day.
Taking time to ask questions and listen is the best way to understand what asthma’s like for the person you know.
2.“Take my asthma seriously”
People don’t always understand asthma, or how serious it can be. They think only children have asthma, that it’s a big fuss over nothing, or an excuse for not getting active.
“The one thing that would make my life better right now would be improving other people’s understanding and awareness of asthma, and severe asthma in particular. Compared to other long-term conditions, asthma isn’t taken seriously, and it’s more likely to be brushed under the carpet. I think the general public knows a lot about asthma at school, but it’s rarely touched on in adults or in the workplace.” - Peter, 52
“There are lots of people who think of asthma as ‘just a breathing thing’. When I first met my fiancé, he said, ‘People can die from asthma? But how? Don’t they just take their inhaler?’ He didn't really understand it until he saw me have an attack in front of him. I think that scared him, and he was much more aware of things that might give me an attack after that!” - Abi, 28
The truth is asthma is serious:
- When someone with asthma comes into contact with one of their triggers, such as a cat, pollen or cigarette smoke, their airways swell up and tighten, so they can’t get enough air into their body. This might make them cough, wheeze, or unable to speak.
- An asthma attack is considered a medical emergency. And sadly, three people die from an asthma attack every day in the UK.
3. “Know what to do if someone has an asthma attack while you’re around”
Perhaps the most important thing you can do for somebody who has asthma is to know what to do if they have an asthma attack.
You can also ask them:
- what are the signs I need to look out for that mean you need emergency help?
- where do you keep your reliever inhaler in case you have an asthma attack?
- where do you keep your written asthma action plan so I know how to help you if you’re having an asthma attack?
- after calling 999, is there anyone else you want me to call and where can I find their number?
4. “Help me avoid my asthma triggers”
If you live or work with someone who has asthma, talk to them about their particular triggers and ask if there’s anything you can do to reduce the chance of them having an asthma attack.
Everyone's asthma is different. Some people's asthma is only triggered by exercise, while others have a long list of triggers that can set of their symptoms, from strong emotions to grass pollen, to specific foods.
Making just a small change could prevent your friend, housemate or colleague being rushed to hospital with an asthma attack.
For example, when there's someone with asthma around:
- avoid spraying aerosol deodorant or wearing strong-smelling aftershave or perfume
- don't use air freshener, scented candles or home fragrances
- don't smoke or use a wood-burning stove
- reduce the amount of pollen in the house on high pollen days by keeping windows closed
- prevent your dog from jumping up at them, or keep animals in another room when someone with asthma visits.
5. “Offer practical help and support for my asthma”
Asthma is a long-term condition that needs to be managed every day, and people with asthma tell us that it can be easier when someone's there to support them.
You could offer to:
- keep a copy of their asthma action plan in your bag or desk, or take a photo of it on your phone, so you know what to do if their asthma symptoms start getting worse
- trade chores – if they can’t vacuum because the dust sets off their asthma symptoms, can they wash up instead?
- exercise together, so that you’re on hand if they start to have symptoms.
- take them to medical appointments, or ask if they’d like you to go with them.
The amount of support someone might need can change too. They might need extra support and understanding if they:
- have just been diagnosed with asthma, or they're still going through the process of diagnosis. They might need time off, or lifts to appointments, or just some support as they get used to the news
- have just had an asthma attack. Asthma attacks are exhausting and traumatic, and it’s important that the person has time to recover and rest before going back to work or everyday activities
- are currently getting lots of symptoms which are stopping them doing the things they love, making them feel tired or like they’re missing out. Encourage them to make an urgent appointment to see their GP or asthma nurse, especially if asthma is keeping them up at night.
6. “Sometimes I need emotional support”
Everyone reacts differently to a long-term condition. Some people with asthma tell us they're afraid of having an asthma attack. Others say they find it hard to accept the impact asthma has on their life. Some studies show that depression is far more common among people with asthma than people without it.
So a little understanding about the challenges of asthma can go a long way – if you want to find out more, read our pages on emotional support for people with asthma.
“I practice meditation, and I’ve have had some cognitive behavioural therapy through the NHS Time to Talk programme, which I’ve found very useful for asthma – it’s all about challenging negative thoughts. I have to accept that I have asthma and there’s no cure – that’s a fact. But what I can change is the way I feel and think about it, and what I do to manage it, like taking my medicines and keeping active.” – Peter, 52
If someone you know has severe asthma, you can find more helpful ideas and tips about supporting and caring for them here.
Video: How to help other people understand asthmaShakeela explains why more awareness is needed to help people understand asthma better.
Transcript for ‘How to help other people understand asthma’
0:05 I don’t think people actually take asthma seriously, unless they’ve got a family member or somebody close to them.
0:12 A lot of people I have actually met personally, through my personal experience, they don’t actually understand asthma as well as I do, because I have asthma.
0:22 What I would like to see change is a lot of asthma awareness,
0:26 and I know it’s gradually going to take time to educate people and to bring the asthma awareness.
0:34 But, I think maybe we could start from schools first, especially.
0:39 Obviously, there’s a lot of children that have asthma and it’s a good way to start in schools by educating the teachers first.
0:48 So, once we educate the teachers, raise that awareness,
0:51 then we can move on to the class children so even they could help if their friend is in danger in the classroom.
0:59 And then we could hopefully move outside the community and educate other people,
1:04 raise the asthma awareness so at least they understand the basics.
Still have questions?
Why not speak to our friendly asthma nurses? Whether your question is about your own asthma or how to support a friend, relative, student or work colleague, they can help.
Call 0300 222 5800 (9am - 5pm; Mon to Fri). Or you can WhatsApp them on 07378 606 728.
Last updated November 2019
Next review due November 2022