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Asthma – why tree pollen, alcohol and cold make it worse

With the advent of Spring, many asthma sufferers struggle to keep their asthma under control.  There may be some key triggers and unexpected culprits to look out for … and try to avoid.

What is asthma?

Asthma is an extremely common chronic and potentially life-threatening condition that causes breathing difficulties.  Although it usually starts in childhood, it can affect people of all ages and can suddenly develop for the first time in adulthood.  It affects almost one in ten children and there are more than 25,000 emergency hospital admissions for asthma amongst children in the UK every year.  This number is significantly higher when you include adult asthmatics too.  There’s currently no cure, but there are simple treatments that can help keep the symptoms under control, so it needn’t have a big impact on your life.

There are various triggers for asthma attacks and many asthmatics will know exactly what their trigger points are, although they may not always be able to avoid them. Some of the triggers include:

The cold

For many asthmatic, Spring is a particularly difficult time.  People are out and about more, yet the weather can still be cold.  This can be problematic as, when someone has asthma, the cold can mean that their airways go into spasm which causes tightness of the chest.  The linings of their airways become inflamed and produce phlegm leading to difficulty in breathing.


Exercising (particularly in cold weather) has been shown to induce asthma attacks in some people. Exercise should not be avoided, but it is important to always have your medication with you. Read this article which has been written for asthma sufferers all about top tips to improve your performance when exercising.

Pollen and pollution:

Both pollen and pollution are increasingly responsible for triggering asthma and many people find their symptoms worsening as Spring arrives.  Some trees start releasing pollen as early as January, with many being at their peak of releasing pollen in March and April, so be sure to know what to look out for this springtime. About 20% of people with hay fever are allergic to birch tree pollen and this, along with Oak and Plane tree pollen, is responsible for many unpleasant symptoms and can exacerbate asthma. The Met Office issues really useful pollen advice, and there are now apps you can use to chart the pollen count too. These will help you to know (and therefore prepare for) when the pollen count is due to be particularly high.

Medication may help:

If you know pollen is a trigger for your asthma, speak to your GP or asthma nurse, as keeping your hay fever under control will really help with your asthma too.  Hay fever can often be helped by taking over the counter medication such as nasal steroids, anti-histamines or anti-inflammatory eye-drops.  Do ask your pharmacist or GP which one might be right for you.  If the one they suggest doesn’t seem to be working, go back and ask for an alternative.  Research has shown that if you are able to control your hay fever symptoms, you are less likely to be admitted to A&E with a severe asthma attack.


The holidays are also a time where many of us enjoy a tipple. Alcohol, however, contains histamine which is also released as part of the body’s reaction to allergies.  It is therefore thought that alcohol increases the body’s sensitivity to pollen and other allergens. As such, it is advisable to avoid alcohol if you are prone to allergic reactions or suffer from allergy induced asthma.

Symptoms of asthma:

  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Often people find it particularly difficult to breathe out and have an increase in sticky mucus and phlegm

Not everyone will get all of these symptoms.

NOTE: Encouraging someone to sit upright is generally helpful when dealing with breathing problems. Sitting the wrong way round on a chair may be a good position for them.

DO NOT take them outside for fresh air if it is cold – as cold air makes symptoms worse.

How to help in an asthma attack:

The following guidelines are suitable for both children and adults. Always follow the prescribed instructions on the casualty’s medication. However, in the absence of this information the following guidance may be helpful:

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Be calm and reassuring, as reducing the stress and keeping the casualty calm really helps them to control their symptoms and panic can increase the severity of an attack. Take one puff of the reliever inhaler (usually blue), immediately – using a spacer device if available.

Steps to follow:

  • Stay as calm as you can and encourage them to stay calm too
  • Sit them down, loosen any tight clothing and encourage them to take slow, steady breaths.
  • If they do not start to feel better, they should take more puffs of their reliever inhaler
  • If they do not start to feel better after taking their inhaler as above, or if you are worried at any time, call 999/112.
  • They should keep taking the reliever inhaler whilst waiting for the paramedics to arrive
  • If you think the asthma attack may be due to an allergic reaction (and the reliever inhaler is not working) and the person has been prescribed an adrenaline auto-injector in case of an acute allergic reaction – it would be advisable to give this injection into the upper, outer part of their thigh according to the instructions. Check with the emergency services and keep them informed and updated as to the casualty’s condition if you are worried in any way.

After an asthma attack:

They should make an appointment with their doctor or asthma nurse for an asthma review, ideally within 48 hours of their attack.

We really hope you have a wonderful, asthma-free Spring holiday, now that you know what to look out for!

Emma Hammett
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