How bad is it? It's like drowning - and I'm getting breathless now just thinking about it

Asthma is choking Britain. Today <i>The Independent on Sunday</i> launches a campaign aimed at tackling the causes of this increasingly prevalent disease. Here Cole Moreton describes what it is like to live with asthma.
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What does it feel like? Drowning in a sandstorm. An asthma attack starts with a little shortness of breath, a little tightening of the chest, as if it were under pressure from outside. The skin all over my body begins to itch and crawl, panic rises, and the heart starts racing.

What does it feel like? Drowning in a sandstorm. An asthma attack starts with a little shortness of breath, a little tightening of the chest, as if it were under pressure from outside. The skin all over my body begins to itch and crawl, panic rises, and the heart starts racing.

My eyes go raw and watery, as though grit is being blown into them. Then each breath becomes more of a struggle, as though the airways to my lungs are filling up with a thousand tiny grains of sand.

The more stressed you become during an attack, the worse the symptoms get. The experts say that you should get away from whatever triggered it, sit calmly, take a couple of puffs and breathe deeply. That's not so easy when you're gasping like a fish out of water and pumping frantically on your inhaler before the lights go out. I'm getting breathless now, just thinking about it.

My worst attack came on the day I went to report on the rabbit equivalent of Cruft's and discovered an allergy to bunny hair. There were 2,000 little thumpers in the hall. I collapsed suddenly, pen poised in the middle of an interview and was carried out dizzy on a stretcher. That's the thing about asthma: it can get you anywhere. However hard you try to avoid the things that you know set off your attacks, there is always the fear of stumbling across a new trigger.

That may have been what happened to my friend Steve, an artist and lecturer in his forties. He phoned his wife from the hotel where he was staying to say that everything was fine, then went to bed. They found him dead next morning. It was a dreadful loss – an inspirational man who died without warning; but it is not a statistical surprise. More than 1,500 Britons are killed by asthma every year, an average of 30 a week. Only last Monday a 15-year-old girl from Swindon collapsed in the street and died.

Asthma also causes fear and suffering to millions of other people. Doctors are currently treating 5.1 million adults and children, and another three million have been diagnosed with it at some time in their lives. Then there are the friends, partners and families of those afflicted, who have to help them to bear it. Anyone who has ever sat up all night watching a young child struggle for breath will know that even the mildest forms of asthma can have disturbing effects.

Nobody really knows how people get asthma in the first place, and there is no government-funded research into finding out, despite the growing occurrence of the disease. The National Asthma Campaign has done so much to help people like me to understand what it is I've got and how to deal with it, but this affliction remains a woefully low priority when it comes to NHS spending.

Unfortunately, most of us – including the parents and sufferers themselves – do not really understand the disease. A lot of teachers don't know what to do if a pupil has an asthma attack. And far too many newly diagnosed sufferers leave their GP not knowing what has caused their asthma or how to use the drugs he has just prescribed.

When a Harley Street doctor told my mother and father that their seven-year-old son had to be sent away to the seaside, they did not have the information available to challenge that advice. They just wanted to stop me choking. It might have been the damp in our council flat that gave me asthma at the age of three (the estate has since been demolished). It might have been the central heating, or an allergy to something in the home. It might have been fumes from the traffic on nearby Leytonstone High Road.

York Lodge, a sanatorium for 30 or so children in Seaford, Sussex, was my home for six months in 1975. Tests there showed that I was allergic to house-dust mites, cat hair and many other things – knowledge that has helped me to survive. I went to Seaford a skinny, wheezy, sickly little boy, and came back a strapping young thing.

From that day I have known in my bones and lungs that congested city streets are bad for me and that sea air is good. The findings of scientists in California and Nottingham come as no surprise to so many asthmatics, who have longed for the link between car fumes and their condition to be finally proven.

We are hoping to move to the coast as a family but I'm afraid of a nasty shock. The research shows that ozone is to blame for a lot of asthma, and levels of it are worse in the countryside, so moving might not help. But I'll take my chances.

In the meantime I'll take my medicine: the blue Ventolin inhaler to loosen up my airwaves, four times a day; the brown Becotide one to keep attacks away, also four times a day; Clarityn tablets to calm the allergic reaction I'll get if I go into a house where there is a cat, a dog or a rabbit; and a Flixanase spray to calm rioting sinuses when that happens, and in the hay-fever season.

These drugs go everywhere with me. Having them means I can play football, swim, or go to the gym like anybody else. There are many world-class athletes who control their symptoms like this. Unfortunately, doctors have yet to come up with a drug that makes me want to get up in the morning, let alone go to the gym.

The Ventolin is the most important help: take it away at dawn and I'll probably be in hospital by dark. If it's not to hand I get seriously nervous. Actually, where is it? Oh God. Calm down, deep breaths. Help!

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