1 in 20 people with asthma have severe asthma

“My first asthma attack was the scariest thing I’d ever been through, and it was a big turning point for me"

Joanne’s severe asthma diagnosis in her 30s was a shock, but she's starting to re-shape her life

My asthma diagnosis

“I was originally diagnosed with asthma in 2011, aged 31, after a second bout of pneumonia. I had been coughing more than usual during a trip to New York, and by the time I got back to the UK my chest was really tight and my cough was getting worse by the hour. On the first morning back at home my husband, Jon, woke me telling me to go to my GP because I was wheezing and coughing so much. When I saw my GP he called 999 and I was rushed to hospital with pneumonia. A respiratory consultant diagnosed me with asthma that day.

“I was shocked to hear that I had asthma but it was also a relief to get a diagnosis as I’ve always had lots of chest infections and had pneumonia before, in my twenties. As a child doing exercise like running, hockey and football would make me wheeze but I’d put this down to not being fit. I didn’t realise at the time that I had undiagnosed asthma.”

My life-changing asthma attack

“I had my first asthma attack at the gym, in 2013. I was doing a session with my personal trainer when I started wheezing. We stopped so I could take my reliever inhaler and rest, but the wheezing didn’t ease. I was at the bottom of the stairwell in the gym struggling to breathe while people were walking past. It was so embarrassing. My personal trainer dialled 999 and I was rushed to hospital. It was soon afterwards that I was told I actually had severe asthma.

“Having an asthma attack was the scariest thing I’d ever been through in my life - it was a big turning point for me because I just didn’t realise how serious asthma could be. I genuinely didn’t know if I would be able to breathe properly again. It didn’t help that I was panicking a lot. I hadn’t been taking my asthma medicines properly because I didn’t think they were helping. In hospital after my attack I was given a magnesium drip, sometimes given to help open the airways in asthma attacks, and high-dose steroids. It was after my severe asthma diagnosis that I made a promise to manage my asthma differently and look after myself better.”

Learning to cope

Joanne Beecroft“I now have a really good inhaler routine and I keep my blue reliever inhaler and spacer in my handbag at all times. My personal trainer also has spare reliever inhalers at the gym in case I run out and we’ve worked out a gym routine so I can exercise without it triggering asthma symptoms. It does take some careful planning and effort, but I don’t want to stop exercising.

“If I do get asthma symptoms, I stop to rest and take my reliever inhaler. But for two years after I was diagnosed I was always very embarrassed about using my inhaler and spacer in public. I felt whenever I got them out I’d be shouting in my head, “Here I am in my early 30s with a lung capacity of 80-year-old!” But when you have an asthma attack, any worries about using an inhaler in public soon go out the window as fear sets in. I’ve had to use my reliever inhaler multiple times in public, so I’m less worried about drawing attention to myself now, and I know it’s doing me good.” 

Taking care of my asthma

“Although I’m coping a lot better with my severe asthma, my medicines are not quite right yet. I’ve been in hospital 13 times in three years and the last time I was kept in for four days. The hospital visits have become more intense and longer, so it’s been a difficult time.

“I’m monitored at the hospital every three months now and I see my asthma nurse every six months. I was on a high dose of oral steroids following a recent admission to hospital, and my preventer inhaler has been changed from the brown one to Symbicort. I’m on two different types of additional treatments and I also take medicines for allergies that affect my asthma, such as rhinitis and hay fever. I keep my asthma action plan on my phone, so if I am getting symptoms I hand it over to people who know my PIN number. This is reassuring because if I have an attack, and I’m not able to talk, I can show people my action plan so they know what to do.”

Getting support when I need it 

“My husband Jon has been so helpful and supportive. He has asthma so his knowledge has been really useful, and he boosts my confidence coping with my asthma. However, he shares my frustration that I haven’t yet found the right combination of medicines.

"People at work have also been great. I’m a project manager and I’ve been with the same company for years. My bosses were really reassuring when I first took time off with pneumonia and have been very supportive since my severe asthma diagnosis; letting me work from home after an attack or when the pollen count is high, for example. Three other people in my team also have asthma so they know what it’s like and know where my medicines are, and that they should call my husband straight away if I become unwell.

“Asthma can scare some people because they don’t understand it. My parents had never seen anyone wheezing and struggling to breathe before I had an asthma attack while I was with them; the noise scared them more than anything. Even though I’d talked to them about my severe asthma and showed them my asthma action plan, and they’d visited me in hospital, they hadn’t put two and two together. Seeing me unwell and struggling to breathe causes them a lot of concern and makes them feel frightened, but they know how to access my asthma action plan on my phone when I need help.

“Living with severe asthma is hard, especially coping with the side effects of steroids, but I have to make the best of it. I'd really like people to be more aware of it and how serious it is. 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.”

Last updated September 2016

Next review due September 2019