Page last updated at 00:09 GMT, Monday, 11 August 2008 01:09 UK

Harnessing nature's health warnings

By Jane Elliott
Health reporter, BBC News

Thunderstorms can affect asthma

It has long been recognised that the weather and health are linked.

We know that when the weather changes we are more vulnerable to colds and sniffles, or headaches.

And the phrase "under the weather" has even become part of our language.

But now scientists are starting to harness nature's warning signals to protect the vulnerable, because more serious conditions are also affected by the weather.

Asthma is one. One stormy day in the summer of 2002, more than 100 extra people went to hospital in the UK with asthma symptoms compared to a normal day.

Heart attacks and strokes also increase a few days after a fall in temperature, because cold causes stress to the vascular system.

The lung disease chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), in which the bronchial tubes are damaged making it harder to breathe, is also affected by the weather.

With a small adjustment to their lives in the run up to the cold weather they can significantly reduce the likelihood of their getting poorly
Wayne Elliott

There are around 900,000 people with COPD in England, and each year there are 100,000 COPD-related hospital admissions.

Caring for COPD patients is estimated to cost England's NHS about 1bn annually.

But a new service, launched by the Met Office in November last year, is already claiming success in keeping people well.

Patients alerted

More than 8,000 patients in 189 practices across the UK have now signed up to use the 'Healthy Outlook COPD Forecast Alert' at a cost of just 18 per patient.

And the latest statistics show that there has been a 21% reduction in hospital admissions among those using the service, compared with the previous winter.

In practices not using the scheme, the fall was just 3%.

Snow scene
Cold weather snaps bring health problems

The head of the Met Office forecasting team, Wayne Elliott, said that the service was "unique" and that this year they are hoping to get even more medical practices on board.

"The patients love it. We give them a pack - developed with healthcare professionals - which gives them quite a lot of information about what their condition is about and what they can do about it.

"We remind them about the importance of keeping warm, the temperature to keep their room at, exercising, trying to avoid the low temperatures and seeking medical advice at an early stage.

"With a small adjustment to their lives in the run up to the cold weather, they can significantly reduce the likelihood of their getting poorly.

"It helps the patients, meaning they do not spend time going in and out of hospital," he said.

Impressive results

Dr David Thomas, a GP whose practice in Aberdare, South Wales, uses the service, said he had been impressed with results.

"Overall it has been fairly successful and patients are hoping it will keep going.

COPD.Pic: Colin Cuthbert/Science Photo Library
People are at risk of breathing problems weeks after a cold snap

"The patients last year were contacted two or three times.

"This has helped the practice as well as the patients. The patients are aware there is a three-week period, after the cold snap, when they are at most risk and are more vigilant.

"We are more vigilant too and we know we may expect more patients."

Mr Elliott said that, as well as expanding the COPD service, the Met Office is looking into other areas of health where their skills can be useful.

"We are thinking of starting a register of weather and ailments, because a lot of it so far has been anecdotal and in the distant past was perhaps dismissed by some parts of the medical profession.

"We are looking at asthma, mental health, cardiovascular disease strokes and angina, which are all affected by the weather."

There is a plan to work with Asthma UK to try and deliver a warning system to asthma and hay fever sufferers, although Mr Elliott warned this was some way off.

But he said that, although the weather could be linked to certain conditions, if they could not help those who were vulnerable the information would be of little use.

"If you are at risk of having a heart attack, is there something that can be done following an alert from the Met Office to stop you having one - that's an important question?

"If there is nothing that can be done to prevent it then it is probably better for the Met Office to stay out of it. If there is, then we may have a part to play."

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