Physical education teachers' lack of understanding of asthma could be putting children's health at risk, according to the findings of an Aberdeen research project.
Although exercise can trigger potentially dangerous asthma attacks, the study of 39 teachers carried out by Melanie Orr, a lecturer in sports science and physical education at Aberdeen College, revealed worrying gaps in knowledge of the ailment.
Over half (59 per cent) could identify asthma from a list of definitions but only 13 per cent could spot the symptoms. Some 54 per cent could identify stimuli that can trigger an attack and 41 per cent identified that breathing through the nose is the better technique for asthmatics. "This is clearly of some concern," said Ms Orr.
Figures show one in seven pupils suffers from the complaint and that every class is likely to contain pupils with asthma.
Under half the teachers (44 per cent) said they had been trained to deal with asthmatics but many said they would appreciate further in-service help. That which had already been carried out appears to be "variable", with all staff who had been trained saying they could manage an attack but none could identify all the symptoms and only half could identify stimuli that can set off an attack.
Only four teachers said their department had a policy on asthma and there were no special PE programmes. Nevertheless, nearly all staff (92 per cent) allowed asthmatic pupils to carry inhalers during lessons.
"What is a little surprising is that three teachers apparently did not allow this," Ms Orr said.
A high proportion (72 per cent) encouraged pupils to use their inhaler before exercising. Only 13 per cent were able to select the activities that are good or bad for asthmatics. Experts recommend pupils should do a slow and gradual general body warm up and that high intensity, long duration activity should be avoided but Ms Orr found no evidence of this while observing lessons.
Aerobic activities such as running and cycling are more likely to begin an attack than anaerobic activities such as team games.
Sudden changes in temperature can also produce attacks in children. Exercising in a warm humid environment is better than a cold outdoor environment and the swimming pool is the best place for asthmatics.
More PE teachers should encourage pupils to breathe through their nose to cut the risk of hyperventilation. Less than half (39 per cent) actually did this.
An Investigation into Provision for Asthmatic Pupils in Physical Education, by Melanie Orr is published in the Scottish Journal of Physical Education.