The charity Asthma UK has published a report that challenges the prescription of medication to asthma sufferers and calls into question the safety of patients. Over five million people in the UK are treated with asthma medication, including a million children.

Asthma UK reviewed 100,000 patient records from over 500 GP practices across a three-year period. From those records, the charity concluded that thousands of asthma sufferers are not receiving the correct medicines. Extrapolating the data from this study to the population as a whole, Asthma UK estimates tens of thousands of asthma sufferers may be at risk. 

There are two types of asthma medication, both of which are inhaled directly into the airways and lungs but work in different ways. Some provide relief from immediate symptoms – so-called ‘reliever’ inhalers. These are usually blue and work by relaxing the muscles around the airways to open them up and ease breathing. 

Some patients are also prescribed ‘preventer’ medications, usually in a brown inhaler, which contain low-dose steroids. These work by preventing inflammation of the airways to try to avoid the onset of symptoms. It takes time for preventer medicines to take effect, so they are used for overall control of the condition rather than to treat immediate symptoms. 

Asthma UK found that many patients rely on reliever medication to treat symptoms more often than they should. The study concluded that around 5% of asthma patients were prescribed more than 12 reliever inhalers over a 12-month period. That frequency of use would indicate their asthma is not being adequately controlled. The charity says that any asthma sufferer who is prescribed long-term reliever medication should also be given a preventer inhaler.  

Andrew Clayton of Penningtons Manches’ clinical negligence team comments: “There is clearly a need for much greater patient understanding of asthma and how to manage its symptoms. Using a reliever medication more than three times a week suggests a person’s asthma is not being properly controlled. 

“It is of concern that some doctors and nurses seem to be missing the signs of poorly controlled asthma. Prescriptions of more than 12 reliever inhalers in a year; long-acting reliever medication without prescribing a preventer inhaler; or over-use of reliever medication are all signs that asthma is not under control and needs review. 

“While Asthma UK is clear that patients are not at immediate risk, it urges patients who fall into certain categories to consider their condition and seek medical advice. The UK has one of the highest rates of hospital admissions and deaths related to asthma in the developed world. NHS resources are stretched but investing in better training and education for doctors and nurses to act early on signs of uncontrolled asthma would free up resources elsewhere in the system.”