One in five people with asthma surveyed by a leading lung health charity said that the soaring cost of living has caused life-threatening asthma attacks, as they cut back on medicines, heating and food.

The Asthma and Lung UK survey of more than 3,600 people with lung conditions - such as asthma, COPD and bronchiectasis – also found that one in six are cutting back on their inhaler use to make it last longer and 6% have not been getting their prescriptions.

Half of the survey’s respondents also said that their condition had worsened since the cost-of-living crisis began, with some needing emergency treatment as they struggle to manage their condition.

Warning that winter is already the ‘deadliest season’ for people with lung conditions, the charity said it could bring a ‘tidal wave’ of hospital admissions as ‘cold weather, an abundance of viruses and people cutting back on medicines, heating, food and electricity puts them at risk’.

It also said that calls to its helpline from people needing advice for help with their finances or benefits in August 2022 was 89% higher than in August 2021.

This comes amid a sharp rise in consumer prices, with UK inflation currently at 9.9%, and soaring energy costs that National Energy Action predicts will leave 6.7 million UK households in fuel poverty, compared to 4.5 million last October.

Responding to the ongoing cost-of-living crisis, community pharmacists have stressed that pharmacies can lead conversations around the issue and ensure affected patients can access support.

People with lung conditions cutting back

The Asthma and Lung UK survey found that 90% of respondents were making significant changes in their daily life because of the rising cost of living, which the charity said would impact their health.

For instance, 63% are buying and eating less food, which the charity said can lower immunity and put them at increased risk of viruses which could trigger an asthma attack.

Almost three-quarters (74%) of respondents said that they plan to heat their homes less, while 45% said they were planning to turn their heating off altogether.

Survey respondents also said that increased costs have also impacted their asthma management, which in many cases respondents have linked to their condition worsening.

One in ten said that they have been using medical devices that require electricity less – such as nebulisers, which help people breathe in medicines - while 5% say they have borrowed medicines from someone else and 6% have not been getting their prescriptions.

One in six said that they were cutting back on using their inhaler to make it last longer. Asthma and Lung UK said that using a preventer inhaler every day is the best way for people to manage their asthma and prevent attacks.

As a result of these changes, 49% said that their lung condition is worse because of changes they’ve made, 20% say they’ve had an asthma attack or exacerbation, 19% have had to see their GP and 7% have had to seek emergency treatment like going to A&E.

Sarah Woolnough, CEO of Asthma + Lung UK, said that the rising cost of living was ‘untenable’ and was ‘forcing people with lung conditions to make impossible choices about their health.’

She said: ‘Warm homes, regular medicine and a healthy diet are all important pillars to good lung condition management – but they all come at a cost. We are hearing from people already reporting a sharp decline in their lung health, including many having life-threatening asthma attacks.

‘With temperatures beginning to fall and further energy price hikes looming, we’re seriously worried that when winter bites it will tip the country into a public health crisis.’

Dr Andrew Whittamore, clinical lead at Asthma + Lung UK and a practicing GP, explained that cold air can trigger life-threatening asthma attacks and COPD flare-ups.

It also creates a ‘hotbed’ for mould and damp. If breathed in, these can cause a lung condition called aspergillosis, which can cause shortness of breath, wheeze, weight loss and a high temperature.

Asthma and Lung UK is part of the End Fuel Poverty Coalition, which is calling on the UK government to provide more help with fuel costs and energy efficiency for people on low incomes.

Role of community pharmacy

In August, Chair of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society in England Thorrun Govind told The Pharmacist: ’People will be choosing not to take medication because they can’t afford it. That means that potentially people are going to come in further down the line, when their symptoms are worse.’

She said that pharmacies could expect to see more patients seeking advice for health conditions and called for the introduction of a Pharmacy First Minor Ailments Scheme across England.

Community pharmacist Ade Williams said that he expected to see more patients opting for generic medicines rather than branded ones.

However, he said that his ‘real concern’ was for the mental health of patients experiencing financial difficulties, including those in in-work poverty.

‘If you've had any experience of poverty, the one thing that it robs you of is dignity, and people who facing that don't necessarily think it's the right thing to raise their hand and say “this is what I need”.’

He said that community pharmacies had an opportunity to champion dignified conversations about the cost of living and what people might be struggling with.

‘We need to make sure that things are accessible, we need to make sure that things are equitable in the way that [assistance] is delivered and that it's normal [to access help]. And I think pharmacies do that well, because it's OK to talk to somebody in the pharmacy or pick up information in the pharmacy or access care in the pharmacy,’ he said. ‘There’s no stigma.’

He said that pharmacies could explore offering or signposting their patients to additional services to help with the rising cost of living. For instance, in the past, his pharmacy has run a fuel poverty campaign that signposted people to additional resources to help with fuel costs.

Mr Williams also said that the rising cost of living could impact pharmacy staff.

Pharmacy contractors have also reported the impact of rising fuel, operational and workforce costs, with the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies calling for complete business rates relief and a reduction in energy VAT.