Asthma Overview

Asthma is a common condition affecting the airways, which can then cause breathing difficulties. It often starts in childhood and can improve by adulthood, although not in all asthma sufferers. It varies in severity depending on the person, with the most severe asthma attacks resulting in hospitalisation. 5.4 million people in the UK receive some form of asthma treatment.

What are the signs and symptoms of asthma?

  • Wheezing when breathing (caused by inflammation in the airways which narrows them, making breathing more difficult)
  • Breathlessness
  • Tight chest
  • Coughing

A temporary worsening in symptoms is known as an asthma attack.

How is asthma diagnosed and treated?

A GP can carry out certain breath tests to diagnose asthma, including a nitric oxide test which can indicate lung inflammation. Spirometry can indicate reduced lung capacity.

It is common to have allergy tests alongside if the asthma diagnosis is positive since allergies can be a trigger for asthma, particularly dust and animal hair allergies.

Other triggers – which it may be possible to avoid to reduce the likelihood of an asthma attack – include:

  • Developing a cold or flu
  • Eczema
  • A childhood lung infection called bronchiolitis
  • Pollen, dust and feather allergies
  • Smoke and pollution
  • Aspirin and ibuprofen
  • Stress and laughter
  • Temperature and weather changes
  • Mould
  • Exercise
  • Having a family history of the condition

There is no cure for asthma but the most common treatment is an inhaler. Most people with asthma will have a reliever inhaler – to relieve symptoms after their onset. People who need to use this inhaler frequently may be given a preventer inhaler to reduce the restriction of their airways.

If inhalers do not help, a variety of tablets can be prescribed to relieve symptoms, including steroids.

There are a few ways to confirm what sort of reasonable adjustments should be made for an employee with asthma:

An employee may not disclose their asthma upfront if it is minor and can be managed easily with a reliever inhaler when required. If it is more severe, or an employee is at risk of having an occupational asthma attack (caused by working in an environment where there are triggering particles such as wood dust and certain chemicals present), it is important to inform a workplace first aider and your employer.

An employer is only required to make reasonable adjustments for an employee with asthma if it has a long-term adverse effect on their ability to perform their work duties. Questions as to the nature of an employee’s asthma and their severity can help determine whether this is the case.

What reasonable adjustments are possible for employees with asthma?

Employers have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments for employees with asthma if they know, are aware of, or could ‘reasonably be expected to know’ that the employee has asthma of a sufficiently severe nature. Most employees will tell their employer what reasonable adjustments they need. They often involve simple changes in the way an employer might usually do things.

If the employee does not disclose a health issue or disability which may affect their performance upfront, an employer should broach the subject sensitively if they suspect that there may be a disability behind the employee’s reduced performance. Reasonable adjustments can then be made in accordance with the employee’s needs, including, in the case of asthma:

  • Relocating the employee’s workstation: for example, allowing the employee to move away from an open window if grass outside has been newly mown and pollen in the air may trigger an asthma attack.
  • Additional breaks to allow the employee to administer their preventer inhaler.
  • Time off following an asthma attack to allow the employee to recuperate and regain their energy. A phased return may also be necessary.
  • Adjustments to duties depending on the severity of their symptoms, which may be variable and improve or deteriorate from one week to the next.
  • Raising awareness so that colleagues understand the employee’s asthma and can help ensure the employee feels comfortable at work. This is particularly important as the employee with asthma needs to feel comfortable telling a colleague if their strong aftershave is causing them breathing difficulties, for example.

Asthma Signposting

Asthma UK – charity working to cure asthma through funding research and campaigning for policy change, as well as supporting people with asthma to help prevent life-threatening asthma attacks (0300 222 5800).

Other Research Resources

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