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Breathe easy

14 October, 2013

Warmer weather can be a trying time for asthma sufferers. Melissa Heagney finds out how to survive when the pollen count is high. 

Photo by Richard Jupe

Photo by Richard Jupe

Associate Professor Ian Charlton is a keen rider. The General Practitioner, and National Asthma Council of Australia spokesman, will often do house calls near his home in the NSW Central Coast on two wheels.

However, he qualifies this by stating he has an electric bike for house calls. “You don’t get as sweaty—it’s not a good look to turn up and be sweating all over your patients,” he jokes.

For his patients with asthma, exercise like bike riding is something he prescribes to improve their health, even during spring when pollens and other allergens are in the air. “Exercise is terrific for asthma—it improves lung capacity, improves heart function and helps people lose weight,” Associate Professor Charlton tells Ride On. “In fact weight reduction is one of the main treatment arms for reducing asthma,” he adds.

But, while exercise can help improve lung health and reduce asthma, it can also induce an asthma attack in some patients. “This is usually a sign a person’s background asthma is not very well controlled … it can also mean they’re not getting sufficient preventers (medication for asthma),” Associate Professor Charlton says. He argues that having asthma is not an excuse to stop exercising, and, people who are having problems when riding should not give up—they should visit their doctor. GPs can do a lung test and write up an asthma plan for patients to ensure their asthma is better controlled.

During spring, as with any time of the year, controlling asthma is important. Associate Professor Charlton says it’s especially important to manage asthma triggers. “When you’re out an about on your bike, your respiratory rate increases bringing more dust and pollens into your lungs, and it does make you a little more vulnerable,” he says, adding that this risk can be managed quite successfully with the right asthma medications.


Associate Professor Ian Charlton

Associate Professor Charlton suggests treating your nose if you suffer hay fever. Allergies like hay fever which may cause an asthmatic’s nose to run, and make them cough, can exacerbate asthma. “Studies show that if you treat peoples’ noses it halves the asthma treatment they need,” Associate Professor Charlton says. People suffering allergies can treat their nose with antihistamines or inhaled steroids (both of which are available over the counter at your local chemist).

Another, though perhaps more extreme intervention, is wearing a face mask while riding. “It’s not seen as very friendly in Australia and not that comfortable when you’re riding but it can work,” Associate Professor Charlton says.

He also recommends people with asthma ride when allergens in the air are at their lowest—either early in the morning or in the late afternoon.

There are treatments asthma patients can seek to desensitise themselves to their allergens. Two treatments are available—one involving doses of drops containing the allergen under the tongue to desensitise people to it. The other, requires desensitising injections (with the same idea, injecting the allergens) administered by a specialist.Both are a long process, taking five years from start to finish.

If a rider finds themselves having an asthma attack, Associate Professor Charlton says this should be treated like having and asthma attack anywhere. “Try and relax, slow your breathing—rapid breathing and panic can make it worse,” he says. “Breathe through your nose and use your reliever puffers. Have four puffs and wait four minutes, if it’s not settled or relieved have another four puffs and wait another four minutes,” he recommends.

If there is still no improvement Associate Professor Charlton says riders should try and get to a doctor, if not a hospital, or if they are near neither and need medical help, dial triple zero. Associate Professor Charlton says with the right management, people with asthma can be enjoying the sights of bike trails throughout the spring months, and sweating through a good ride is highly recommended.

Quick facts

  • About 2 million Australians are asthmatic
  • Around 80% of people with asthma also suffer allergies like hay fever
  • Being overweight can add to your risk of developing asthma – some studies show being obese adds significantly to the risk of developing adult onset asthma.

Ride On content is editorially independent, but is supported financially by members of Bicycle Network Victoria. If you enjoy our articles and want to support the future publication of high-quality content, please consider helping out by becoming a member.

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