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Asthma and COVID-19: Understanding the Guidelines

Reading time | 4 mins

When the news of the COVID-19 pandemic broke in Ireland, we were glued to the news bulletins trying to gather as much information as possible about the virus.

We needed to know what the symptoms were, how the virus spread and what we needed to do to minimise infection. Among the many announcements, “at risk” groups were often mentioned.

What did it mean to be in an “at risk” group?

Did it mean you were more prone to contracting the virus?

Or did it mean you would be severely ill if you caught the virus?

Looking for answers

I did some research as I wanted to see what the new coronavirus meant for asthmatics.

I still wasn’t quite sure whether people living with asthma were included in the “at risk” group, until I saw that the Asthma Society of Ireland had created their own list of recommendations for asthmatics, based on the advice given by the HSE.

The advice on the website recommends that people living with asthma should continue to follow their asthma action plan – a step-by-step guide which details all the information about asthma and tips to stay well. If you’re unsure about what should be in yours, speak to your healthcare provider or alternatively you can download this example designed by the Asthma Society of Ireland.

The leaflet can be used to record what medications to take and when, as well as outlining the warning signs of poorly managed asthma and what to do in the case of an asthma attack. It also provides handy advice on filling prescriptions, and proper inhaler technique and usage.

A big question on my mind was how I would know if my asthma cough wasn’t a symptom of coronavirus? Some of the symptoms of the virus are similar to the symptoms of my asthmatic episodes, like coughing and shortness of breath. I still needed more information on the specifics of the virus and how it could impact my asthma.

When I visited the pharmacy to fill my prescription, I found that my reliever inhaler was out of stock. There was a lot of panic-buying in the supermarket and I guess this also applied to medicines. I continued to take my preventer inhaler – which thankfully was still available – as prescribed, each morning and night.

The Asthma Society of Ireland later posted that they had been in contact with the Department of Health and the Irish Pharmacy Union who reassured them that the Irish supply chains of asthma medicine had plenty of stock and could be relied upon.

Coronavirus vs. asthma symptoms

The Asthma Society of Ireland published a series of questions and answers on COVID-19 for asthmatics and COPD patients. This article confirmed that asthmatics were indeed included in the “at risk” group. It also recommended that people in this group should avoid physical contact with others. The questions and answers clarified that the HSE did not believe that we were at greater risk of contracting the virus, but unfortunately, as a result of having an underlying respiratory condition, we were at greater risk of having severe symptoms if we caught the virus.

The article also clarified how to differentiate between asthma symptoms and COVID-19 symptoms. The main recommendation was to look out for other symptoms of coronavirus – most commonly a “new” fever and the usual symptoms that come with having a fever, like aches and pains, shivering, and feeling hot and cold.

More confusion ensued when it was announced that people over seventy and people who identified as “vulnerable” would have to cocoon. According to HSE, cocooning is described as staying at home to protect yourself against COVID-19, leaving your home as little as possible and avoiding face-to-face contact with people, including those living in your household.

I was in the “at risk” group but now I had to figure out whether I was in the cocooning group too. The “at risk” group was then divided into two groups:

  • High-risk
  • Very high-risk

Outlined in the “very high-risk” groups were those with severe asthma. The Asthma Society of Ireland consider severe asthma to be present if you experience the four main characteristics:

1.      If you are prescribed a long-term injection for asthma

2.      If you have ever ended up in intensive care as a result of asthma

3.      If you attended hospital overnight for asthma over the past 12 months

4.      If you are prescribed medicines from the given list.

I was thankful that the first three cases didn’t apply to me. As I scanned through the list of medications, I was surprised to see my preventative inhaler included in the list. Maybe my asthma was more severe than I had previously thought? reminded readers that there was no scientific research that indicates that people with severe asthma are at an increased risk of developing serious complications from COVID-19 and that the information was subject to change. The world is still learning about COVID-19.

By following my Asthma Action Plan and the guidelines provided by the HSE and, I have managed to remain healthy and safe during this time. I have made a conscious change in my behaviour and it has almost become second nature to me after all these weeks. I hope some day we can return to our normal, everyday lives. In the meantime, keep safe and well.

UK/MED/20/0195 June 2020