Updated 17 November 2017

Would you be able to spot an asthma attack in the workplace?

An asthma attack can be fatal and always requires swift action. Knowing what to do in case of an asthma emergency can save a life.

At least 23% of South Africans suffer from asthma, which makes it likely that at least one of them shares an office space with you.

Although asthma can be controlled, this condition can be pretty serious, even life-threatening, when an attack is not tended to promptly.

A variety of triggers

We don’t like to think of emergency situations happening in the workplace, but a colleague who gets an asthma attack should be treated immediately.

An asthma attack occurs when the airways start to narrow and the person struggles to breathe, usually as a result of an allergic reaction, which can be triggered by a variety of factors such as pollen, dust, and even certain foods in some people.

According to the South African Medical Journal, as presented by Cipla, asthma is fatal for so many people in South Africa because they fail to recognise the symptoms, and by the time they reach the hospital, it can be too late.

It is therefore possible to reduce the mortality rate of asthma if we understand the symptoms of the disease.

Would you be able to recognise an asthma emergency? If you're able to help, you could save a life.

Signs of an asthma attack

There are a number of symptoms that can present in a person suffering an asthma attack. Look out for these signs:

1.     Panting or struggling to breathe, especially after physical activity

2.     Making a wheezing or whistling sound when breathing out

3.     A tight chest or sore ribs and hunching over

4.     Sweating, paleness, nausea or even vomiting

5.     Coughing and constant throat clearing

6.     Signs of anxiety or complaining of fatigue

7.     Inhaler failing to offer relief

What you can do to help

When someone has an asthma attack, you need to act quickly as a lack of oxygen could be fatal.

Here's what you should do if a colleague is having an asthma attack:

  • Make them sit up straight and try to keep them calm.
  • Talk in a calm, reassuring manner and make sure they have an inhaler.

Call an ambulance if the following occurs:

  • The person is not improving after using the inhaler.
  • Fingernails or lips turning blue.
  • Struggling to talk and walk.

Why should we be aware of asthma in the workplace?

Although many people are fully able to control their asthma in the workplace, asthma can affect productivity and cause employees to take sick days. It's therefore important that workplaces be mindful of possible triggers such as cleaning chemicals, and that air conditioners be cleaned regularly.

Unfortunately, it's not always possible to avoid these triggers. Know what sets off your asthma symptoms and keep your medication up to date, recommends Asthma UK. Also inform your line manager and your colleagues of your condition. If you ever have an attack at work, they will be aware of the fact that you suffer from asthma, giving them more control over the situation.

Image credit: iStock 


Ask the Expert

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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