Supporting friends or colleagues with asthma

Simple ways to make life easier for the people with asthma you live, work or spend time with

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 the condition what they find helpful – and what they don’t! This is what they told us:

1. Find out about their individual experience of asthma

Each person’s asthma is different – everyone has different triggers and symptoms and these might 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. Some people with asthma can exercise (footballer David Beckham and Olympic cyclist Laura Trott have asthma), while others find it difficult to climb the stairs some days.

So although it’s really useful to read up about asthma (our understanding asthma section is a great place to start), making time to ask questions and listen is the best way to understand what asthma’s like for the person you know.

2. Take asthma seriously

One of the things we hear most often from people with asthma is that other people don’t understand it – they think it’s something only children have, that it’s a big fuss over nothing or an excuse for laziness.

“Even today I don't feel asthma is taken seriously, especially if people think they know everything about the condition when in fact they've only heard of it in passing. My advice to others who are perhaps encountering asthma for the first time would be just to spend a few minutes looking through the Asthma UK website and learning some basic first aid, because if more people are educated about the disease then hopefully more lives can be saved.” – Flora Barber

“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 chronic 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 Naylor, 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 Bettle, 28

“The biggest issue for me is not being taken seriously because I don’t wheeze. I’ve been told: ‘well you’re not wheezing so it can’t be asthma’.” Julie Sharpe, 30

The truth is:

  • Asthma makes the airways (the tubes that take air in and out of the body) extra sensitive. 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 become unable to speak.
  • If somebody with asthma is having symptoms and their blue reliever inhaler isn’t bringing the symptoms under control, they are having a potentially life-threatening asthma attack which is a medical emergency.
  • Asthma can appear at any stage of life, and can get better and worse at different times too. Some people ‘grow out of’ childhood asthma, but not all.
  • Asthma can run in families. If your relatives have asthma, eczema and/or allergies, you’re more likely to have asthma, but you can still have it even if no one else in your family does.
  • There is currently no cure for asthma, and around three people a day die from an asthma attack.

3. Know how to respond if they have 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. Read our emergency advice here and ask them:

  • if you’re unable to speak when you’re having an asthma attack, what are the signs I need to look out for that mean you need emergency help?
  • where do you keep the inhaler you need if you’re having an asthma attack?
  • where do you keep your written asthma action plan with the instructions I need if you’re having an asthma attack?
  • after calling 999, who else do I need to call and where can I find their number? 

“My advice is: if you spend a lot of time with someone who has asthma, just ask what their plan is and where their medication is. You never know when you may need to know it.” - Joanne Beecroft, 36

4. Find out if you can help them avoid their asthma triggers

Everyone’s asthma is different. Some people’s asthma is only triggered by exercise, while others have a long list of triggers which can set off their symptoms: from strong emotions to specific foods or grass pollen. So 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.

People with asthma tell us that they don’t like ‘making a fuss’ even when they’re struggling to breathe, so they’re unlikely to demand huge changes to your home or workplace just to be difficult. Making just a small change to your routine could prevent the asthma attack that means your friend, housemate or colleague is rushed to hospital, gasping for every breath.

They might ask you, for example:

  • to avoid spraying aerosol deodorant or wearing strong-smelling aftershave or perfume when they’re around
  • not to use air freshener, scented candles or home fragrances when they’re around
  • not to smoke around them or light a wood-burning stove
  • to help reduce the amount of pollen in the house by keeping windows closed or drying clothes inside
  • to prevent your dog from jumping up at them, or keep animals in another room when they visit.

"My friends have been really good at helping me avoid triggers. I used to be a bit of a social smoker but they know not to let me have one of their cigarettes when we’re out, and since I don’t buy my own that’s really helped me cut down." - Ben Langston, 

“People at work have been great. My bosses have been very supportive since my severe asthma diagnosis; letting me work from home when the pollen count is high, for example.” - Joanne Beecroft, 36

5. Offer practical help

Asthma is a long-term condition that needs to be managed every day, and people with asthma tell us that it can be lonely to do it all on their own. You don’t have to be a medical expert – just speak to the person you know with asthma about the things that would help them. Here are a few suggestions, but they’re bound to have more.

  • 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.
  • Know where their spare reliever inhaler is kept so you can get to one quickly if they start having symptoms.
  • Trade chores – if they can’t vacuum because the dust sets off their asthma symptoms, can they wash up instead?
  • Offer to exercise together, so that you’re on hand if they start to have symptoms.
  • Offer help to get to any medical appointments, or ask if they’d like you to go with them. Or just remind them when one is coming up.

“I’d recommend keeping an inhaler at work, and leaving a spare one at someone else’s house if you go there regularly. If you have a sleepover at someone’s house you need to make your hosts are aware and let them know where you keep your inhaler.” - Jane Elson

The amount of support someone might need can change too – they might need extra support and understanding, especially if they:

  • are recently diagnosed, or still going through the process of diagnosis. They might need time off or lifts to appointments, and time to mentally 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. Asthma might be keeping them up at night or stopping them doing the things they love, making them feel tired or like they’re missing out.

6. Offer emotional support

Everyone reacts differently to an illness or a long-term condition. Some people with asthma tell us they fear having an asthma attack or struggle dealing with the impact having asthma has on their life. In fact, some research 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.

If your friend cancels plans at the last minute, or takes a while to come out of their shell after an asthma attack, it doesn’t mean that they don’t want to see you, or don’t value you. Try not to take it personally, and offer to make small changes to your plans so they can still join in. For example, can you exercise indoors instead of going for a run? Or meet at a different pub which doesn’t have a smoky log fire?

“I used to get angry and feel that it was unfair that I had this condition, so I’d also advise someone to seek some kind of counselling to learn how to manage your emotions and anxiety – or try something to calm your breathing and mood, whether that’s yoga or meditation. It’s not a cure, but it does help you see things in a different light.

“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 Naylor, 52

If someone you know has severe asthma, you can find more helpful ideas and tips about supporting and caring for them here.

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 colleague, they can help. Call 0300 222 5800 (9am - 5pm; Mon to Fri), or arrange for a nurse to call or email you back.

Last updated October 2016

Next review due October 2019