Asthma attack rates seen at GP surgeries fell significantly during the first Covid-19 pandemic lockdown of 2020, a study suggests.
However, researchers from the University of Edinburgh said there were several possible factors in the 20% drop in cases at doctors surgeries.
Lower levels of air pollution, fewer cold and flu infections, and the fear of attending doctors surgeries due to coronavirus itself could all potentially have contributed to the decrease in cases.
Drawing on data from more than 100,000 patients, the study is the first national analysis of lockdown effects on asthma attacks.
Lead researcher Dr Ahmar Shah, chancellor’s fellow at the University of Edinburgh’s Usher Institute, 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 is 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.”
Asthma attacks, also known as exacerbations, are bouts of shortness of breath, wheezing or a tight chest. There are usually more than six million GP consultations and 1,400 deaths attributed to asthma in the UK every year.
Researchers identified 100,165 patients who had had at least one asthma attack since 2016 on the national GP database.
They compared the number of GP visits for asthma attacks per week from January to August 2020 with the same period in the previous three years, noting the start of lockdown on March 23.
Drops in GP visits for asthma attacks 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, which researchers said suggested that only milder attacks were reduced during the pandemic.
The Edinburgh University researchers cautioned 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.
The study was conducted in association with BREATHE – The Health Data Research Hub for Respiratory Health, NIHR and the Asthma UK Centre for Applied Research, and it was published in the journal Thorax.