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Lockdown linked to drop in asthma exacerbations, GP data suggests

A study suggests there was a 20% drop in asthma exacerbations seen at GP clinics during the first lockdown of the COVID-19 pandemic

A study published today in the journal Thorax suggests that rates of asthma exacerbations seen in GP clinics dropped by 20% during the first COVID-19 pandemic lockdown.  

There are usually more than six million GP consultations and 1400 deaths attributed to asthma in the UK every year. This is the first national review of lockdown effects on asthma exacerbations and it includes data from more than 100,000 patients.  

Findings from the research 

Researchers from the Asthma UK Centre for Applied Research looked at a national database containing information on almost 10 million patients, and identified 100,165 who had had at least one asthma exacerbation since 2016.  

Reviewing weekly blocks of GP visits for exacerbations from January to August 2020, the team compared the results against the weekly rates for January to August 2016 – 2019. They used March 23, 2020 as the lockdown start date.  

Drops in GP visits for asthma exacerbations during the lockdown were seen across all age groups, for both men and women, and across all regions of England excluding London and the North East. There was no reduction in the rate of asthma attacks that led to a hospital visit, suggesting that only milder attacks were reduced during the pandemic. 

Possible causes 

Lower levels of air pollution, fewer cold and flu infections, and the fear of attending doctor surgeries due to Covid-19 were possible reasons for the 20% drop in cases seen at GP surgeries, researchers said. 

The researchers caution that some patients could have gone to hospital without a GP referral, which may mask higher rates of asthma attacks than recorded by GP surgeries. 

This paper was written by researchers from the Asthma UK Centre for Applied Research, working in association with the BREATHE - Health Data Research Hub for Respiratory Health: Dr Syed Ahmar Shah, Professor Jennifer Quint, Dr Bright Nwaru and Centre Director, Professor Aziz Sheikh.  

Lead author, Dr Shah said:  

“Asthma is a chronic condition that affects over five million people in the UK and until now, we didn’t know how these patients were being affected by lockdown. The data shows an overall reduction in asthma attacks seen at the GP. However, it’s not clear whether this was an actual improvement in asthma due to reduced pollution and fewer opportunities for other viruses to spread or whether patients were reluctant to attend their doctor’s surgery during the pandemic. Further research will help explain the reasons behind our findings.”

Read the article

This publication is available from the journal Thorax

Cite as

Shah SA, Quint JK, Nwaru BI, et al. Thorax Epub ahead of print: [30 March 2021]. doi:10.1136/ thoraxjnl-2020-216512