Eosinophils – a type of white blood cell

Eosinophils – a type of white blood cell – are a biomarker for asthma: too many of them in the lungs can cause inflammation

Living with severe asthma

What does today look like for you? Perhaps you’ll get up, head to work, meet friends for dinner – and then home to bed, so you are ready and refreshed to do it all again tomorrow.

So far, so normal. But for people with severe asthma, a typical day for you would be an extraordinary one for them.

Patients describe what it feels like to live with severe asthma

Of the 358 million people who live with asthma worldwide, it is estimated that up to 10% have severe asthma. It is an extreme form of the disease in which people struggle to control their symptoms and may continue to have asthma attacks even when they take high doses of medicine.

For many severe asthma patients, even simple tasks can become difficult. Many live in fear of their next attack, of not being able to breathe.

What is severe asthma?

Asthma is a chronic lung disease in which inflammation in the lungs makes the airways become narrow. This leads to symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, breathlessness and a tight chest. When these symptoms become worse, it can lead to an asthma attack. While developments in therapy mean that many patients are able to manage their disease with daily treatment, up to 10% of patients struggle to control their asthma with standard treatments. These patients are classed as having ‘severe asthma’ and require therapy with high doses of medicines.

Research has shown that not all asthma is the same. Asthma can have a number of underlying causes and different types of inflammation. For some people, their inflammation may be triggered by environmental allergens, such as dust mites, pollen and moulds. Eosinophils or neutrophils – types of white blood cell – can also contribute to inflammation in the lungs, which makes breathing difficult and increases the risk of an asthma attack.

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Donna’s story

Donna had always led a very active life. She coached cheerleading squads, was an amateur ballroom dancer and enjoyed travelling with her husband. All of that came to a stop when she developed severe asthma 10 years ago. As her health declined, she could no longer even tie her own shoelaces, had difficulty sleeping and was regularly in and out of hospital.

Donna, explaining her story as a severe asthma patient
Donna, asthma patient

“When my asthma was uncontrolled, I had symptoms every day”, explains Donna. “It was very debilitating for me. Asthma limits everything and every day of your life. I couldn’t go out; I couldn’t do things; I couldn’t go on vacations.”

I had symptoms day and evening, pain in my chest, coughing, wheezing, not being able to breathe, not being able to normally function.

For eight years, Donna had no control over her symptoms and had several near-fatal asthma attacks. The constant fear of an asthma attack was never far from her mind: “The worst thing is the anxiety,” Donna says. “A typical attack would begin with wheezing, and then I’d start to get anxious – thinking, what’s going to happen next? How bad is it going to be? I’d worry that I wouldn’t make it to hospital, or see my husband and children. It is so frightening.”

With the support of her husband and doctors she was finally able to gain control. Donna encourages others to talk openly to their doctors and to not give up until they can control their asthma and live the life they want.

Severe asthma can be very difficult for patients. That’s why we always think of Donna, and others like her, as we work to improve care for patients with asthma and other respiratory diseases.