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What is Asthma?

Asthma is a condition that, when triggered, makes it hard for you to breathe.

Everyone’s asthma is different – and everyone has different triggers that lead to an asthma attack. Most people with asthma learn to manage their condition well. There are medications available to prevent attacks, and to relieve the symptoms of an attack.

One in 9 Australians – or over 2 million people – has asthma. The condition affects people of all ages, and in many different ways. Most people only experience mild episodes of asthma; while the minority have severe, recurrent life threatening asthma attacks.

When you have an asthma episode or attack, your airways narrow which makes it hard for you to draw air into your lungs. When this occurs, reliever medication, commonly through an inhaler, can be used to help you breathe normally again.

Asthma is due to hypersensitive airways reacting to triggers. Three main factors cause the airways to narrow:

  • Inflammation – the inside lining of airways become swollen
  • Extra mucus develops – this sticky fluid can plug airways
  • Bronchoconstriction – muscles around the airways tighten which causes airway narrowing If diagnosed with asthma, you should develop an Asthma Action Plan in consultation with your doctor. This plan will help you manage your condition so that you avoid having asthma attacks, and will also tell you what to do if you do have an attack.

If diagnosed with asthma, you should develop an Asthma Action Plan in consultation with your doctor. This plan will help you manage your condition so that you avoid having asthma attacks, and will also tell you what to do if you do have an attack. 

If asthma is left untreated, it can cause permanent damage to your airways.

Causes of asthma

While the exact cause of asthma is unclear, there are a few factors that increase the likelihood of developing the condition. These include:

  • having a parent with asthma, eczema or hayfever
  • obesity
  • exposure to tobacco smoke during pregnancy or childhood
  • exposure to chemicals, particles and gases in the environment including pollution from bushfires, traffic, and workplace chemicals

Triggers of asthma

If you have asthma, certain ‘triggers’ will cause your airways to narrow and bring on an asthma attack. If you have more frequent asthma episodes, it is useful to identify your triggers and reduce your exposure to them. 

Some of the most common triggers include: aerosol sprays, allergens, air pollution, bushfires, chemicals, colds and flu, dust mites, exercise, certain foods, medications, mould, pets, pollen, sex and smoking. Some triggers cannot or should not be avoided (e.g. exercise and sex); use of a preventer medication can be helpful with managing these.

Symptoms of asthma

The most common asthma symptoms are:

  • shortness of breath
  • wheezing
  • tightening in your chest
  • a dry, irritating cough that’s worse at night or when you exercise

Your asthma symptoms may change over time.

Diagnosis and treatment of asthma

If you think you may have asthma, your doctor may perform some breathing tests, ask about your symptoms, and discuss any triggers that you know of. They may also measure your lung capacity using tests like spirometry or peak flow monitoring.

Your doctor may initially give you reliever medication to confirm that you do have asthma, as this medication should cause your symptoms to improve.

Once diagnosed, you and your doctor can create an Asthma Action Plan that outlines the treatment that’s right for you. Depending on the severity and type of asthma you have, this plan may include:

  • Preventer medication – these are taken daily to reduce the symptoms of asthma and prevent the onset of an asthma attack. The most common type of preventer medication is inhaled corticosteroids.
  • Relievers – these are fast-acting medications that provide relief from the symptoms you experience when having an asthma attack (e.g. Ventolin). The medicine helps to relax the muscles around your airways so you can breathe more easily.

The way you take your medication may vary depending on your situation, with spacers, nebulisers and inhalers used to help get the asthma medication into your lungs.

Further information and sources


This article is of a general nature only. You should seek medical advice if you think you or your child may have symptoms of asthma.

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