THOUSANDS of people with severe asthma are not getting the life-saving treatment they need, a charity has warned.
Those suspected to have the deadly condition are at a constant risk of having a full-blown asthma attack as they are not being referred for specialist treatments, according to Asthma UK.
The charity revealed that four in five people in England who might be at risk of having severe asthma were stuck in “limbo” in primary care instead of being referred to specialists for diagnoses and treatments that could transform or save their lives.
In a new report, published today, Asthma UK said these people were caught in a “never-ending cycle” of going in and out of hospital with repeated life-threatening asthma attacks.
And it even unveiled patients had been forced to take treatments with “toxic” side effects.
The charity is now urging the National Institute of Clinical Excellence (Nice) to develop new guidelines so healthcare professionals can “confidently” refer patients with possible severe asthma to specialist care.
Tens of thousands of people with suspected severe asthma are stuck in a never-ending cycle
Dr Samantha Walker
Asthma UK’s director of policy and research Dr Samantha Walker admitted suspected severe asthma patients had the highest risk of dying from an asthma attack.
She said: “Tens of thousands of people with suspected severe asthma are stuck in a never-ending cycle, in and out of hospital and at constant risk of a life-threatening asthma attack.
“We want healthcare professionals to take asthma seriously and refer suspected severe asthma patients more quickly, as they are have the highest risk of dying from an asthma attack.
“Nice must also urgently put in place clear, simple and unambiguous guidelines so healthcare professionals can follow the protocol and more people with severe asthma can receive life-saving and life-changing treatment.”
What are the symptoms of asthma?
Asthma is a respiratory condition caused by inflammation of the breathing tubes that carry air to and from our lungs, and it currently affects over 5 million people across the UK.
According to the NHS, the main symptoms of asthma are:
- Wheezing (a whistling sound when breathing)
- A tight chest
Although the above symptoms can have a number of causes, they are likely signs of asthma if they happen regularly and keep coming back, are worse at night or early morning, or seem to be in response to an allergen.
The severity of the above symptoms can vary between different people.
When these symptoms suddenly worsen temporarily, it is known as an asthma attack.
Asthma attacks can be caused by allergens, such as animal fur or pollen, cold air, exercise, chest infections or other irritants – such as cigarette smoke.
Allergies and asthma often go together.
Asthma caused by an allergic reaction is known as ‘allergic asthma’.
The report, Living In limbo, the scale of unmet need in difficult and severe asthma, said many GPs were missing the warning signs of severe asthma.
It added that many people with difficult or severe asthma were relying on long-term, high-dose steroids which are not always effective and can cause side effects including weight gain, mood changes and osteoporosis.
Asthma UK estimates that about 127,000 people on high-dose inhaled steroids were not being referred to specialist care.
It said that new medicines were available to treat severe asthma such as monoclonal antibodies but that these injections, which can reduce or stop the need for oral steroids and have fewer side effects, are only available for patients who have been referred to severe asthma centres.
It took me so long to get the help and treatment I needed. Luckily it saved me just in time – for someone else it might be too late
Jennifer O’Hara claimed she had to wait three years and go through repeated hospital visits before she was diagnosed with severe asthma and given the new drug.
The 49-year-old, from Wickford in Essex, commented: “I’ve had asthma since I was a child but four years ago, the stress of my father’s illness caused a terrifying asthma attack that left me in a coma for a week.
“I recovered from the coma but my asthma had worsened. Every day I struggled to breathe.
“I was in and out of hospital every week and my GP gave me steroids, but they weren’t making me better.
“This went on for three years and it was only after another near-fatal asthma attack that I was finally referred to a specialist.
“I’m so angry it took me so long to get the help and treatment I needed. Luckily it saved me just in time – for someone else it might be too late.”
Asthma UK’s clinical lead Dr Andy Whittamore, who is also a practising GP, said GPs were hampered by a lack of clear and effective referral guidelines from Nice for severe asthma.
He added: “Severe asthma has a colossal impact on people’s lives and can disrupt their home, work and school life.
“If someone’s symptoms cannot be controlled or they have more than two flare-ups requiring oral steroids, healthcare professionals should consider referring their patient to a specialist asthma clinic.”
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