Asthma symptoms: why are women at higher risk of asthma attacks, what causes it and how is it treated?

Fluctuations in female sex hormones can cause asthma symptoms to flare up and trigger life-threatening attacks

<p>Women with asthma in the UK are twice as likely to die from an asthma attack than men (Composite: Kim Mogg / JPIMedia)</p>

Women with asthma in the UK are twice as likely to die from an asthma attack than men (Composite: Kim Mogg / JPIMedia)

Women with asthma in the UK are twice as likely to die from an asthma attack than men with the condition, a charity has warned.

Asthma + Lung UK said that more than two thirds of asthma deaths in the UK over the past five years have been among women and has called for more to be done to tackle the “stark health inequality”.

Women with asthma in the UK are twice as likely to die from an asthma attack than men (Composite: Kim Mogg / JPIMedia)

Why are women at higher risk of asthma attacks?

The charity has said many people are unaware that fluctuations in female sex hormones can cause asthma symptoms to flare up, or even trigger life-threatening attacks.

It said the current “one-size-fits-all” approach to treatment is “not working” as it does not take into account the impact that these hormones during puberty, periods, pregnancy and menopause can have on symptoms and attacks.

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More than 5,1000 women in the UK died from an asthma attack between 2014/15 compared with fewer than 2,300 men.

Meanwhile, emergency hospital admissions in England show that, among those aged 20 to 49, women were 2.5 times more likely to be admitted to hospital for asthma treatment compared with men.

The charity is now calling for more research to be done to examine the sex-related differences in asthma, with GPs encouraged to explore this potential trigger with their patients and create tailored adjustments to their medication regimen.

Women are also being urged to take their preventer medication as prescribed, as well as attending their annual asthma review when called.

Keeping a symptom diary is also recommended as this could potentially help identify triggers.

Sarah Woolnough, Asthma + Lung UK chief executive, said: “When it comes to research funding, women with asthma have drawn the short straw.

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“Gaps in our knowledge are failing women, leaving them struggling with debilitating asthma symptoms, stuck in a cycle of being in and out of hospital and, in some cases, losing their lives.

“By understanding the role of sex hormones in asthma, we could transform the lives of the three million women with the condition in the UK and the many millions of women with asthma across the world.

“We urgently need to see more investment in research in this area so we can find new treatments and better use existing treatments to help millions of women and save lives.”

What are the symptoms of asthma?

The NHS says the most common symptoms of asthma are:

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  • wheezing (a whistling sound when breathing)
  • breathlessness
  • a tight chest (feeling like a band is tightening around it)
  • coughing

These symptoms can be caused by many things but they are more likely to be asthma if they happen often and keep coming back, are worse at night and early in the morning, and seem to happen in response to an asthma trigger, such as exercise or an allergy.

When asthma symptoms get worse for a short time, this is known as an asthma attack and it can happen suddenly, or gradually over a few days.

Symptoms of a severe asthma attack can include:

  • wheezing, coughing and chest tightness becoming severe and constant
  • being too breathless to eat, speak or sleep
  • breathing faster
  • a fast heartbeat
  • drowsiness, confusion, exhaustion or dizziness
  • blue lips or fingers
  • fainting

How is it treated?

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There is currently no cure for asthma but treatments can help to control the symptoms, with the most common being inhalers.

Reliever inhalers help to ease symptoms when they occur, while preventer inhalers stop symptoms from developing. Some people may need a combination inhaler that does both.

Tablets may need to be taken if using an inhaler alone is not helping to control symptoms. Other treatments, such as injections or surgery, are rarely needed, but may be recommended if all other treatments do not offer any relief.