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The NHS is calling on parents to keep asthma medicine close at hand this week, with children up to three times more likely to need medical help as the school year starts.
One in ten young people has asthma, with spikes in demand for help from GPs and hospitals in the weeks after school holidays, and an annual peak for children in September.
Last year there were 25,128 cases of under-16s going to hospital with asthma, while recent analysis published by Public Health England found that GP appointments for children with asthma increase this month, with cases more than doubling and boys more likely to need help, while the total number of emergency hospital admissions for asthma typically jumps between August and September from around 3,500 to more than 6,000.
The combination of coughs and colds circulating, children getting out of the habit of using inhalers during the summer break, air pollution and the stress of term starting, is thought to contribute to the spike in asthma cases.
Asthma is a lung condition causing breathing difficulties, which can occur randomly or after exposure to a trigger like pollen, pollution, smoke, infections, colds and flu, and is among the issues being targeted by a new Children and Young People Transformation programme, a major new initiative from the NHS, working across the health service and with families to address the biggest challenges to the health of young people.
The country’s top medics are today (Monday 2 September) urging young people and their parents to prioritise taking their medication and preventer inhalers as prescribed, as millions of families prepare for the new school year.
Asthma is the most common long-term medical condition for children in the UK, and being with a new group of classmates can also lead to the spreading of germs, cold and flu bugs.
Jacqueline Cornish, National Clinical Director, Children and Young People and Transition to Adulthood, NHS England said: “Millions of families know that asthma can bring stress and trauma, but simple common sense measures like taking medicines at the right time, giving children a spare puffer to take to school and checking in with a pharmacist for inhaler checks, can help parents manage the annual onset of ‘asthma season’ and go a long way to helping keep your child well and out of hospital.
“The NHS Long Term Plan sets out a package of measures to identify and treat this common but potentially lethal condition, but the health service cannot meet this challenge alone and needs parents, carers and schools to help reduce the likelihood of avoidable asthma attacks this month, while in the long term the whole of society has to crack down on the scourge of air pollution, which contributes to thousands of illnesses and hospital trips every year.”
Dr Andy Whittamore, Clinical Lead at Asthma UK and a practising GP says: “The ‘Back to School’ effect of asthma can be frightening and potentially life-threatening for children returning to classrooms this week. It’s easy for children to fall out of routines over the summer and forget to take their asthma medicines. This means their asthma is a ticking time bomb and then when they catch a cold or flu at school, they are at risk of having a potentially life-threatening asthma attack.
“Parents can follow simple steps to cut the risk of their child having an asthma attack, such as giving the school a reliever inhaler for their child and a copy of their asthma action plan. They should also ensure that their child takes their preventer inhaler, this helps to build up protection in their airways over time so that if they come into contact with triggers such as colds, they are less likely to have an asthma attack. Adults also need to know how to spot when their child’s asthma is getting worse and know what to do if they have an attack and can get information and support from www.asthma.org.uk/back-to-school
“If a child is using their reliever inhaler (usually blue) three or more times a week, coughing or wheezing at night or feeling out of breath and struggling to keep up with their friends, parents should book them an urgent appointment with their GP.”
The NHS outlines some simple steps parents can take to ensure their son or daughter’s treatment is managed and kept under control, including:
- Having a child’s up-to-date written asthma action plan prepared by a GP. The school should also have a copy of the child’s asthma action plan and teachers should be aware if pupils help using their puffer.
- Ensure your child gets back into their asthma routine before the school year starts, including taking preventer medications every day if prescribed
- Check with the pharmacist that your child is using their inhaler if they are old enough to use it by themselves
- Have a check-up before the school year sports lessons start
- Pack a spare reliever puffer and spacer in your child’s school bag, checking that the puffer isn’t empty or out of date.
- Talk to the school about possible asthma triggers and whether staff members receive training on how to recognise and respond to asthma symptoms.
Asthma UK also provides advice to parents about how to cut the risk of attacks, including speaking to a nurse if there are concerns about medication and helping children to get into the habit of using their inhaler.
Dr Rahul Chodhari of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), said: “Asthma is the most common long-term medical condition in the UK with around 1.1million children diagnosed. Worryingly, the UK has one of the highest prevalence, emergency admission and death rates for childhood asthma in Europe and as the new school term begins, risks associated with the disease increase.
“We know that every 20 minutes a child is admitted to hospital because of an asthma attack and poor management of the condition is often to blame. To prevent children reaching crisis point, every child should have an asthma management plan. Sicking to a routine of taking preventative medicine prescribed is also recommended and if your systems get worse, see your GP or asthma nurse as soon as possible to review treatment.”
More than three million people will benefit from improved NHS respiratory, stroke and cardiac services over the next decade, with the NHS Long Term Plan setting out steps to improve asthma care, including faster diagnosis, improved medicines reviews and more expert help for parents from local health services like high street pharmacies, to keep a safe asthma care plan.
An effective asthma care plan should involve an asthma review, being on the right medication, awareness of how to use inhalers correctly and a written asthma action plan.
The NHS in England has brought together a wide range of clinicians, commissioners and voluntary sector organisations into the new National Paediatric Asthma Collaborative, to work collectively on improving asthma care and support for children with asthma.
The focus on asthma care for young people is part of a new Children and Young People’s Transformation Programme, to improve diagnosis of key conditions, help children, parents and the health service to better manage ill health, co-ordinate services and reduce avoidable deaths.
Professor Martin Marshall, Vice Chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: “Asthma is a distressing and sometimes dangerous condition that affects around one in 11 children – and it is something GPs and our teams see regularly in our surgeries.
“The start of a new school term can be an anxious time for some children, and this can exacerbate asthma attacks, so it’s important that any child with asthma has an up to date action plan on how to manage their condition, and that their school is aware of it.
“This advice from NHS England and Asthma UK is key to keeping symptoms under control, and we’d encourage any parents of children with asthma to take note – and for schools to be vigilant and have steps in place to support students if medical assistance is needed.”