London – The current aerosol asthma inhalers in use are cheap but, because of the gases they contain, are one of the National Health Service’s (NHS) biggest contributions to climate change. Other countries think alternatives are superior – and some patients in the United Kingdom who have switched say they are controlling their asthma better.
So, could millions of people be prescribed different inhalers?
“It’s like there’s a vacuum cleaner in your lungs trying to pull your air out.” That’s what an asthma attack feels like for nine-year-old Sebastian.
Some of his attacks have needed treatment in hospital. A recent cross-country race left him keeled over on the floor struggling to breathe through the inflammation in his lungs and his tightened airways. “I fell over and my lungs felt like the air can’t go in, it felt like there was nothing in me left,” he says.
Asthma runs in his family. His mum Caroline Sousek says the disease has “hugely dominated” her life since the age of three. It would start from the moment she woke up wheezing: “I would not go anywhere without an inhaler in my hand, it really affected what I was able to do and when I was able to do it.”
Both mum and son say they have transformed control of their asthma by changing their inhalers to ones that are also much better for the planet.
“I just can’t believe the impact it’s had . . . it has literally been life-changing,” says Caroline – speaking to me for BBC Radio 4’s Inside Health.
She and Sebastian still have “preventer” medication to reduce the risk of an attack and “reliever” medication in case one happens. But the crucial change for them, is how those drugs get into their lungs.
Before, they had been using aerosol spray inhalers – also known as puffers or pressurised metered-dose inhalers.
“The aerosol sprays contain a powerful greenhouse gas which is used to propel the medicine out of the inhaler and into the airways,” says Dr Alex Wilkinson, an NHS consultant in Stevenage who specialises in lung diseases.
The different gases – called hydrofluorocarbons – used in these inhalers are between 1 000 and 3 000 times more potent at warming the planet than carbon dioxide. (BBC)