Asthma research disadvantages women by ignoring sex hormones

Women with asthma are twice as likely to die from an asthma attack than men in the UK, new data shows that health experts have called for urgent research into the sex-related differences of the condition.

They are more likely to have the condition, more likely to need hospital treatment for it, and more likely to die from a seizure, Asthma + Lung UK said. Over the past five years, women have accounted for more than two-thirds of asthma deaths in the UK.

The charity said the current “one-size-fits-all” approach to treating asthma “doesn’t work” because it doesn’t take into account the impact that female sex hormones during puberty, periods, pregnancy and menopause can have about asthma symptoms and attacks. More needs to be done to tackle “severe health inequality,” she added.

In childhood, asthma is more prevalent and severe in boys. However, after puberty the situation is completely reversed, Asthma + Lung UK said.

Between 2014-15 and 2019-20 more than 5,100 women in the UK died from an asthma attack compared to fewer than 2,300 men. Meanwhile, emergency hospital admissions in England show that, among people aged 20 to 49, women were 2.5 times more likely to be hospitalized for asthma treatment than men.

Asthma + Lung UK said many people were unaware that fluctuations in female sex hormones can cause asthma symptoms or even trigger life-threatening attacks. It calls for further research to examine the sex-related differences in asthma.

Poppy Hadkinson, 30, a Stratford-upon-Avon TV host, said her asthma got worse during puberty. “I was diagnosed with asthma at age 11, which in retrospect it was when I was in the middle of puberty,” she said. “Over the next decade, I had regular asthma attacks and would have ended up in the hospital up to six times a year.

“There seemed to be a pattern in my symptoms, related to my menstrual cycle. Almost every month before my period, I really got sick with asthma. My symptoms left me with difficulty breathing, which was terrifying, and I often ended up in the hospital.

“The asthma attacks I suffered were so severe that I had been ventilated four times at the age of 22 and was wondering if I would make it to my next birthday.” She later started using a biologic drug, omalizumab, which was a “life changer”.

“We need to better understand how asthma affects women so that we can find treatments that return their lives to women like me,” she said.

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Asthma + Lung UK is encouraging general practitioners to explore potential triggers with their patients and to create tailor-made adjustments to a patient’s treatment regimen. Women are also encouraged to take their preventative medications as prescribed, make sure they attend the annual asthma review, and keep a symptom diary that could help identify triggers.

Asthma + Lung UK Chief Executive Sarah Woolnough said: “When it comes to research funding, women with asthma have come out in the wild. The gaps in our knowledge are letting women down, leaving them struggling with debilitating asthma symptoms, stuck in a cycle of getting in and out of the hospital and, in some cases, losing their lives.

“By understanding the role of sex hormones in asthma, we could transform the lives of the 3 million women with the condition in the UK and the many millions of women with asthma around the world. We urgently need more investment in research in this area so that we can find new treatments and make better use of existing treatments to help millions of women and save lives. “

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