Is severe asthma different to asthma?

In my last blog post I mentioned how I met some other people with severe asthma at a BLF-AUK event where we had a conversation about asthma and severe asthma.

It may have the same mechanisms in that it is a condition where the airways become inflamed and irritated causing difficulty breathing but here ends the similarities. The way it displays itself is different. The way it is managed is different. The way it impacts your life is different. There are too many differences to name them all so this is why we came to the conclusion that it needs a different name.

When someone hears  severe asthma they think its that common everyday condition that every second person has. The part they have not heard is the “severe” that went in front of the asthma which makes it very different, but because asthma is so common people are very relaxed so don’t take it too seriously or act urgently when dealing with it. This leads us to become so frustrated. I can think of so many times where I could potentially have not needed to go to ICU if the Dr I saw at the front door when arriving in A&E took my severe asthma for what it is and not treat it just like asthma.

One of the challenges that people with the condition severe asthma face is that so many in the medical profession refer to those with asthma that is not in control as having severe asthma or brittle asthma when they actually don’t. There are so many terms floating around to describe asthma that is not controlled for example

  • brittle asthma
  • severe asthma
  • difficult severe asthma
  • difficult asthma
  • severe brittle asthma

That is just a few. The issue arises is that some of these terms are used incorrectly and we have GP’s or nurses in the GP surgery telling someone with asthma that is not in control that they have brittle asthma when they don’t. They just don’t have their asthma in control at that moment and need some medication tweaks.

The types of asthma such as brittle asthma can only be diagnosed by a specialist asthma consultant at a specialist hospital. Not even asthma consultant at local hospitals can diagnose it as there is a raft of specialist testing and multi disciplinary input to ensure that everything is ruled out before you are diagnosed with this very rare type of asthma like severe asthma or type 1 or type 2 brittle asthma.

This is why I and others have been thinking that perhaps these extremely rare forms of asthma need a different name that perhaps does not even have the term asthma in its name to save us as patients from not being treated correctly. Maybe just then we won’t suffer so much when in hospital.

Another big issue for some with severe asthma is that we can look ok one minute and the next we are fighting for our life or we look ok but actually we are working incredibly hard to breathe but don’t want people to know. You cant see severe asthma unless you are having an attack which makes it so hard for people to understand just how debilitating it can be. How every aspect of your life is dictated by your condition, that even taking every medication that is there for asthma it is still not enough to give you a quality of life. It is hard to think that despite taking 30 different medications each day I still don’t have control of my health or my breathing to where I would like it.

I wish my lung condition could be covered by the term asthma but severe asthma is far more complex to manage, treat, control, and understand. No 2 people with severe asthma are the same which makes the condition so much more complex to diagnose and manage. This often leads to very frustrated patients and frustrated healthcare practitioners because despite everyones best efforts life is not good, hospital admissions are just part of life, even ICU becomes part of life which should never be the case.

This is why I think severe asthma needs to be totally separated from asthma and doing this could be achieved by changing its name to stop people from being complacent when treating you in an emergency situation.

I hate living with severe asthma and hate that it is so poorly understood. Maybe one day there will be a huge break through and suddenly all of us whose life is dictated by their severe asthma is no longer like that. Until then I will continue to try and raise awareness of what it is like and just how serious a condition it is.

A year on monoclonal antibody treatment

I can’t believe it is a year since I started on mepolizumab (mepo) a monoclonal anti body treatment to suppress my eosinophils in a bid to help my asthma. The big question is as it helped?

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I am not sure. My consultant seems to think it has and I am to continue on it. My eosinophils have dropped dramatically however I am still on the same maintenance prednisolone dose and we have not been able to reduce it down and I am no longer working just now. I was in clinic last month speaking to my consultant as I was having second thoughts about staying on mepolizumab because I cant see a huge amount of improvement but he feels it is worth staying on it and I have been approved to stay on it for the following reasons:

  1. My blood eosinophil count has come down (I’m not sure of the exact figure just now but we are checking again next month)
  2. My peak flow although overall it is lower than it was the variation in peak flow readings is no longer there and it is a lot more consistent- I cant complain about this as now I know where I am each day compared with before where the diurnal variation was huge.
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  3. Although I have had a near fatal attack and several others requiring hospital I have been able to recover from them a lot quicker than before. My consultant described some of my attacks as spectacular (Im not sure how I feel about that).
  4. Chest infections and colds have not quite taken the hold that they were before and again recovering has been a lot quicker.
  5. My quality of life is better (although for me I am still really struggling with the idea of not being at work doing the job I love).

Looking at the reasons my consultant listed I really cannot complain and can see that the mepo has had an impact. It has not had the wonder drug impact that I hoped for and that I have read many have had but I am alive and have a great team behind me so really need to be thankful.

I did some work a good number of years ago for Astra Zeneca where I met some other asthma patients. One young lady I met had their life totally transformed by Xolair going form being intubated numbers times, not being able to work and very disabled by their asthma to having a full time job and minimal asthma issues. I think deep down part of me was desperate to have this effect. I remember thinking after I was told I would start mepo that I might be able to get back to the gym, start running again and playing lacrosse and golf but that has not been the case which is a bit disappointing for me but I was told not to get my hopes up too much.

Even though the mepo has not been the wonder drug that was going to transform my life I am so grateful to my consultant for being willing to try it and keeping me on it. Apart for the hopes of it transforming my life I was worried about the side effects it might have. On the whole I have really not had any significant side effects. I have been finding I get a bit of a local reaction for about 48-72 hours post injection where the skin is red and hot. Initially when I first started getting the injection I did get a really bad headache, backache and just a general feeling of being unwell. After about the 3rd injection this went away. I have found that if I am a bit under the weather in the days leading up to getting the mepo then I tend to get more side effects in terms of headache etc but nothing that has been so bad it is not worth getting the injection especially as I am not having to get up and work set hours etc.

I have come across different stories on social media about peoples experience of biologics but one thing I have found is the number of people weighing up the travel for these treatments. When you asthma gets to the severe end of the spectrum most are referred on to a tertiary centre where their care is managed and their local hospital is there as a support team but do not take the overall control of your management. There are not many tertiary centres so there is often a lot of travel involved. I am lucky that Id not have a huge distance to travel but I think even if I did I wouldn’t mind because I know the team are doing it in my best interests and the least I can do is travel although it may be more difficult when you factor in that you do have severe asthma which is already controlling your life but if there is a chance that this is going to help then the travel is worth it!!

Another discussion I had with my consultant was about new biologics that are coming out. He is hopeful that dupilumab may have its use altered and some asthmatics may qualify for it. Just now it is only used in adult eczema in the UK but in the States there have been people on it who have aspirin sensitive asthma which is what I have except that I am anaphylactic to aspirin and salicylic acid so fingers crossed this gets a green light at some point as we both think this might work well for me.

The use of these monoclonal anti body drugs is dependent on such specific criteria and the patient needs to meet them and the consultant needs to be able to provide evidence for it before you get the green light. Because of this many are not getting the opportunity to try it and see if it has an effect.

For me I did not match the criteria for blood eosinophils but my consultant was able to argue the case. He was able to show that the prednisolone I am on will be surpassing eosinophil production and if i was not on it then my count would be elevated but it is too dangerous to take me off them or down a significant amount just to get the blood result. I would say it is worth asking your consultant to see if there is potentially a way to justify why you need to try this treatment and then be approved for it. It is so frustrating that a drug you are trying to get off is the main factor to many not meeting the criteria, but if you came off it then it is so dangerous as your asthma can go so out of control without it. I can see why they have strict criteria because the drugs are really expensive as they are such targeted drugs but in time they will drop in price and hopefully the criteria for the drugs will also be more flexible too.

Overall I am glad I have had the chance to try mepolizumab and being able to stay on it. If I had not changed consultants I doubt I would even be considered for it which is a scary prospect as I have no idea where I would be with my health.

If anyone has questions about monoclonal antibody treatment please ask!!