Asthma is one of the most common noncommunicable diseases, affecting an estimated 262 million people in 2019, and causing nearly half a million deaths every year.

Although asthma cannot be cured, people with asthma can enjoy a normal life if correctly diagnosed and treated. Inhalers (both bronchodilators and steroids) are considered essential medicines in the WHO package of essential noncommunicable disease interventions for primary health care and should be available to all people living with asthma around the world.

On World Asthma Day, WHO experts offer 5 tips on how to manage your asthma better.

1. Be aware of your symptoms

Cough, wheeze and difficulty breathing are all signs that your asthma is not well controlled. If you feel that your symptoms are getting worse, follow the instructions from your doctor. Use a reliever inhaler (e.g. salbutamol) with a spacer to open your airways.

2. Identify and avoid your triggers

Common triggers include smoke, fumes, viral infections, pollen, changes in the weather, animal fur and feathers, and strong fragrances. Know what affects you and try to avoid if possible. If not possible, make sure you have your reliever inhaler readily available.

3. Know your inhalers

A reliever inhaler (also called a bronchodilator) opens up the small airways and improves airflow in and out of the lungs. Use this when you have symptoms

A steroid or preventer inhaler reduces inflammation in the lungs and is an essential part of long term asthma treatment. By using a steroid inhaler, as directed by your doctor, you will improve your symptoms and reduce the risk of a severe attack.

Inhalers are the safest, most effective treatment for asthma and allow people with asthma to lead a normal, active life.

4. Use a spacer

A spacer is a plastic chamber which connects the inhaler at one end, to your mouth via a mouthpiece or mask at the other end. It can help inhaled medicines to reach the small airways in the lungs and work better. The spacer allows more time for the medicine to be breathed in and means that less coordination is required. Without a spacer, you have to breath in deeply and press the inhaler at the same time – inhaled medicine often ends up in the mouth or throat and is ineffective. Some types of inhaler (e.g. dry powder inhalers) do not need a spacer – check with your doctor if you are unsure.

Woman with son doing inhalation with nebulizer at home

5. Take back control

Knowledge is power. Ask your doctor to explain how your inhaled medicines work and how you should use them. Make sure your friends and family also know what to do if your asthma is bad. By taking your inhalers early, when you first notice that your symptoms are worsening, you can avoid a serious attack.

WHO’s work on asthma

WHO is working to support countries to provide essential asthma interventions as part of universal health coverage, through technical tools and guidance.

“Uncontrolled asthma has major consequences for people living with asthma, their families and communities, health-care systems and national economies. It is shocking that every day children and adults suffer needlessly from symptoms that could be prevented with essential inhaled medicines,” says Dr Bente Mikkelsen, Director of the Department of Noncommunicable Diseases at the World Health Organization. “A huge effort is needed to accelerate universal health coverage and meet the Sustainable Development Goal commitments that have been made.”

medical officer examing an asthma patient

The latest WHO NCD country capacity survey found that in low- and low-middle income countries:

  • bronchodilator inhalers are available in 60% of countries; and
  • steroid inhalers are available in 40% of countries

If the number of avoidable premature asthma deaths that occur in low- and middle-income countries every year – roughly 185 000 people aged <70 years – is to be reduced, this global inequity must be addressed.

WHO convenes a network of organizations committed to reducing the global burden of chronic respiratory diseases, including asthma, call the Global Alliance against Chronic Respiratory Diseases (GARD). The alliance also has a focus on addressing global inequity. Recently, a new GARD community on the WHO Knowledge Action Portal on NCDs was set up to help accelerate progress, by supporting networking and sharing of information and resources.

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