According to British Lung Foundation data, over 12% of the UK population have been diagnosed with asthma, with around 5.4 million of those people currently receiving treatment. Asthma is a condition where the airways leading to the lungs become inflamed; this inflammation is responsible for symptoms such as a cough, wheeze, breathlessness and tight chest. These symptoms can be triggered by both internal factors, such as hormonal changes and the body’s response to exercise, and external factors, such as allergens, pollution, and, of particular concern at the moment, viruses.
Despite NHS spending on asthma patients reaching £1 billion a year, the UK has one of the worst death rates in Europe. In a research study for Asthma UK, as many as 1 in 6 people were unaware that it can result in fatality, perhaps explaining the UK’s lax attitude when it comes to seeking treatment. In 2017, 1,484 people in the UK died from an asthma attack; the National Review of Asthma Deaths suggests that two-thirds of deaths could have been prevented if the patients had sought basic asthma care.
Those with chronic respiratory diseases are considered by the NHS to be at moderate risk of developing complications from coronavirus infection. Dr Andy Whittamore, Asthma UK’s clinical lead, has suggested that this classification is based upon the knowledge that viruses are a known trigger of asthma and it is assumed that coronavirus will act in the same way. It is more likely to trigger severe symptoms in people with poorly controlled asthma, but there is not an increased infection rate; essentially, asthmatics are not more likely to catch coronavirus, but if they do, they are more likely to experience heightened symptoms, especially if their asthma is not being treated correctly. Unfortunately, there is minimal data concerning the mortality rates of people living with specific conditions when it comes to coronavirus, with asthma being severely under-reported even before the virus hit.
There is evidence, however, that the pandemic is scaring the population into taking their lung health more seriously; people have begun to opt for taking their preventer inhalers, rather than relying on their reliever inhalers. Individual pharmacies are struggling to cope with this demand; the temporary shortage of medicine is not attributed to people stocking up inhalers, but is instead believed to be due to a brief interruption of the supply chain. Luckily, the government was preparing for Brexit by ordering higher quantities of medicine, meaning that thankfully we have extra supplies in stock.
Advice from Asthma UK is that asthmatics are at a higher risk of developing more severe symptoms of COVID-19, but at this time the best thing to do is to take medication to prevent an episode resulting in hospitalisation. Professor Jo Douglass, an asthma and allergy expert from the Royal Melbourne Hospital, stated: “the best protection against flare-ups of asthmatics is to have well-controlled asthma at the start”.