Updated 01 November 2017

Debunking asthma myths

Many important elements of asthma have been misinterpreted or ignored over the last few years. Let's clear up some of the most common asthma myths.

Many important elements of asthma have been misinterpreted or ignored over the last few years. Let's clear up some of the most common asthma myths:

Asthma Myth #1:
All asthma attacks are caused by an allergy

We know that asthma is usually an allergic disease and that allergy is somehow linked to the cause of asthma. In many children, and in some adults, allergy to something that is breathed in can be found. If this allergen is avoided, asthma is often easier controlled.

However, because of this close link between asthma and allergy it is often thought that if somebody has an asthma attack it must be caused by an allergy or exposure to an allergen.

This is not always the case. In fact, most asthma attacks in both children and adults are caused by the common cold. The virus that causes a cold is usually the trigger factor.

This fact has many implications. It means that people with asthma are sensitive to colds and must get good asthma therapy to prevent the cold-causing asthma attacks. This preventative approach is extremely important in asthma management and must be stressed.

Also remember that a cold is caused by a virus and that antibiotics won't work and shouldn't be used. You don’t need an antibiotic to treat a cold or an asthma attack.

Asthma Myth #2:
Exercise is a special trigger of asthma

We know that asthma is often triggered by many factors, including colds, as discussed above. Some of the other factors are cigarette smoke, pollution, strong fumes, allergy and, of course, exercise.

The lungs of someone with asthma are sensitive to these factors. Some are the cause of the asthma and some are just non-specific factors that a sensitive airway will respond to.

Research has shown that exercise triggers the inflammation that is seen in asthma. This is an important factor in the lives of most asthmatics.

While some asthmatics only experience asthma when they exercise, and never symptoms at other times, this is unusual. In fact, most people with asthma will be sensitive to exercise.

The answer to these exercise-induced symptoms is to treat asthma better in a preventative way. By using regular preventative treatment for asthma, exercise will no longer be a problem for the asthmatic.

Another important fact about exercise and asthma is that all asthmatics must be able to exercise without problems. Not being able to play sport or go to gym is a sign that asthma is not well controlled. It is essential to bring this fact to the attention of your doctor

Asthma Myth #3:
Allergic rhinitis and sinusitis is not important to treat

We know that about three quarters of people with asthma also have allergy of the nose and sinuses. It is also true that if this part of the problem is out of control, asthma will be too.

Symptoms of a blocked nose or sinusitis mean that allergic rhinitis (hay fever) is possible. If you have asthma, these upper-airway symptoms make the chances for good asthma control less likely.

The good news, however, is that allergic rhino sinusitis can be well treated and just as easily controlled as asthma. Some asthma medicines even treat the nose.

Don’t let your medical aid tell you that they will not pay for your nasal treatment if you have asthma. That is a short-sighed approach that costs everybody money down the line.

Your chance of having an asthma attack is much higher if your nose is a problem.

Asthma Myth #4:
Asthma medicines are expensive

You are probably under enormous pressure from your medical aid to cut back on asthma treatment and to use a generic drug.

It needs to be said that asthma is a costly disease, but that the cost of asthma is from having asthma attacks. One day in hospital is very costly. But preventative asthma medicines, those that you use all the time to prevent asthma attacks, are not and never will be costly.

Cost is not an absolute number. Something is not expensive in rand terms – it is only expensive if it leads to failure to control the problem. Most asthma preventative medicines are cost-effective as they save money by preventing asthma attacks.

There are many good generic drugs available for asthma, but some of the original medicines are not yet available as generics. These are not expensive if they save you from having an asthma attack.

- (Prof Robin Green, Associate Professor of Paediatrics: University of Pretoria, for


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Asthma Expert

Professor Keertan Dheda has received of several prestigious awards including the 2014 Oppenheimer Award, and has published over 160 peer-reviewed papers and holds 3 patents related to new TB diagnostic or infection control technologies. He serves on the editorial board of the journals PLoS One, the International Journal of Tuberculosis and Lung Disease, American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Medicine, Lancet Respiratory Diseases and Nature Scientific Reports, amongst others.Read his full biography at the University of Cape Town Lung Institute

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