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28 September 2022

The nation’s lungs shouldn’t bear the brunt of skyrocketing bills

For those who suffer with lung conditions, price hikes could bring a public health crisis.

By Sarah Woolnough

Winter is always a fraught time for people with lung conditions. Flu season begins, viruses and colds begin to circulate, and temperatures drop, all of which can trigger life-threatening asthma attacks and flare-ups of other lung conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Now, with costs soaring and energy prices set to rise further before they are frozen, increased fuel poverty could make this winter one of the deadliest. 

We don’t have to wait until then to see how the cost of living is damaging our lungs. New data released today by Asthma + Lung UK shows 90 per cent of people surveyed have been forced to make changes to their lives in a desperate bid to save money, including skipping meals (63 per cent), not getting their prescriptions (6 per cent) and using life-saving medical devices such as nebulisers less (10 per cent). One in two say their lung health has deteriorated because of the changes that they have made, while one in five say this has led to a life-threatening asthma attack or flare-up.

One of those people is Ben, who has severe asthma and COPD, and was recently hospitalised with a serious asthma attack. “My lung condition’s getting worse, partly because I feel so stressed all the time,” he says, “I’ve already been hospitalised this month and I’m worried I’ll end up in hospital again if I have to cut down on using my nebuliser medication. I’m also not eating well at the moment because I’m buying cheaper food. I try not to think about how I’ll manage this winter.”  

With further increases to energy bills due to come into force on Saturday (1 October), food prices rising by an average of almost £500 per year and prescriptions costing some people with asthma more than £400 a year according to previous research, it’s no surprise people are turning to charities like Asthma + Lung UK for help. Calls to our charity’s helpline from people needing advice for help with their finances or benefits soared by 89 per cent this August compared to the same month the previous year, and website traffic has increased by 63 per cent. We are hearing day in, day out from families who are struggling to make ends meet, from those who are buying marked down yellow-label food, borrowing medicines and investing in thermals for the winter.

Sadly, things are only going to get tougher when temperatures fall. Cold air is a common trigger for lung conditions, causing about two thirds of people with asthma and COPD to experience life-threatening symptoms. That’s why it’s so vital that people with lung conditions live in homes heated to a comfortable temperature. But with millions expected to be plunged into fuel poverty come October, almost half (45 per cent) of people we surveyed in August said they’re planning on turning their heating off altogether this winter. Cold homes can also lead to increased damp and mould, which are dangerous for people’s lungs and can trigger life-threatening flare-ups.

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THANK YOU

It’s not just people who already have lung conditions who are at risk. Respiratory viruses thrive in cold, damp homes and – if Australia’s flu season is anything to go by – we’re deeply concerned that we could soon be tipped into a public health crisis at a time of immense strain on the NHS.

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The nation’s lungs shouldn’t be bearing the brunt of skyrocketing bills. While we welcome the recently announced price freeze, energy costs will still increase this weekend and we’re urging the government to step up and do more for people with lung conditions. We urgently need to see more support for people on low incomes so they can afford to keep their homes warm this winter, as well as an end to unfair prescription charges in England and more financial support for people who face extra energy bills for medical equipment.

If you are struggling, please call our helpline or visit our website: asthmaandlung.org.uk/financial-help

The charity advises that people with lung conditions explore whether they can save money on their prescriptions by buying a pre-payment certificate, which costs £108.10 a year. Advice on this at: https://www.asthma.org.uk/advice/inhalers-medicines-treatments/cost/ 

[See also: “This is just not safe for anyone”: the NHS doctors at breaking point]