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

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, you should take a reliever medication, commonly through an inhaler, to help you breathe normally again.

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 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:

  • genetics
  • having a parent with asthma, eczema or hayfever
  • obesity
  • smoking during pregnancy, which can damage a baby’s lungs
  • having respiratory infections as an infant.

It is unclear whether air pollution or exposure to allergens has an impact on asthma development; nor is it clear whether our modern diet, high in processed foods, has impacted how many people have asthma today.

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, depression, dust mites, exercise, certain foods, hormones, medications, mould, pets, pollen, sex and smoking.

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 also initially give you reliever medication to confirm that you do have asthma, as this medication should cause your symptoms to disappear.

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, and are generally prescribed if you have more than two or three attacks per week. The most common type of preventer medication is inhaled corticosteroids.
  • Symptom controllers – these are only prescribed if your preventer medication isn’t working, and are taken twice daily to help relax your airways. There are medications that combine this and your preventer medication in one device.
  • Relievers – these are fast-acting medications that provide relief from the symptoms you experience when having an asthma attack. 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.

Asthma in toddlers and children

Asthma is one of the most common causes of hospital visits in young children. Many present with symptoms like wheezing and coughing, although it’s hard to diagnose children under five.

If your child is diagnosed with asthma, your doctor should aim to prescribe the least amount of medication that’s needed to keep their symptoms under control. You may find that your child only needs preventer medication at certain times of year.

It can be stressful as a parent as you work out which treatment is best for your child. This resource on children and asthma may answer some of your questions.

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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