Asthma is a common disease of the airways – the structures through which air passes when moving from your mouth and nose right down to the smallest structures in your lungs. Asthma is the most widespread chronic health problem in Australia. About one in ten Australian adults and one in nine or ten children have asthma. It is often associated with other allergic conditions like hay fever and eczema.
Asthma causes the muscles in the airways to tighten and the lining of the airway becomes swollen and inflamed, producing sticky mucous. These changes cause the airways to become narrow, making it difficult to breathe. Most people with asthma only have symptoms when they inhale a ‘trigger’ such as pollen, exercise without the right preparation, or catch a cold or the flu.
Asthma cannot be cured, but with good management, people with asthma can lead normal, active lives. A range of programs and services are available to support people with asthma.
Symptoms of asthma
Asthma tends to run in families. Asthma affects everyone differently, however, and even two children from the same family can have different asthma patterns and triggers.
Typical asthma symptoms include:
- a tight feeling in the chest
- wheezing – a whistling noise when breathing
- shortness of breath
- struggling to breathe.
These symptoms are often worse at night, in the early morning or during exercise.
Children experiencing asthma symptoms may also:
- not eat or drink as much
- have a tummy ache and vomiting
- become tired quickly
- get more puffed out than usual when running and playing.
Causes of asthma
The triggers for asthma symptoms vary for different people. Some common triggers are:
- allergy triggers such as house dust mites, pollens, pets and moulds
- cigarette smoke
- viral infections – for example, colds and flu
- cold air or changes in the weather
- work-related triggers – for example, wood dust, chemicals, metal salts
- some medication.
Grass pollen season brings an increase in asthma and hay fever. It also brings the chance of thunderstorm asthma.
Grass pollen grains get swept up in the wind and carried for long distances. Some can burst open and release tiny particles that are concentrated in the wind gusts that come just before a thunderstorm. These particles are small enough to be breathed deep into the lungs and can trigger asthma symptoms, making it difficult to breathe.
For people with asthma or a history of asthma, thunderstorm asthma can be sudden, serious and even life threatening. Having good control of your asthma can help reduce your risk of thunderstorm asthma.
If you’ve ever had asthma, talk to your GP about what you can do to help protect yourself from the risk of thunderstorm asthma this pollen season.
Here are some other things you can do to help reduce your risk of thunderstorm asthma:
- Visit your GP to get an up-to-date asthma action plan. Remember, taking an asthma preventer properly and regularly is key to preventing asthma, including thunderstorm asthma.
- Where possible avoid being outside during thunderstorms from October through December – especially in the wind gusts that come before the storm. Go inside and close your doors and windows. If you have your air conditioning on, turn it onto recirculate.
- If you develop asthma symptoms, follow your asthma action plan. If you don’t have one yet, follow the four steps of asthma first aid.
Treatment for asthma
Asthma can be well controlled with the appropriate medication in almost all people. The main types of asthma medication are:
- relievers that act quickly to relax the muscles around the airways – this is the medication used during an asthma attack
- preventers that slowly make the airways less sensitive to triggers and reduce inflammation inside the airways – they are taken daily to help keep you well
- combination therapies that are preventers containing two different medicines.
Management of asthma
Good asthma management from the National Asthma Council.
Your GP will prescribe the correct medication and explain how to use it. For good asthma management, it is important that you:
- See your GP for regular check-ups and work together to manage your asthma.
- Understand what triggers your asthma – this can be different for everyone.
- Try to avoid or reduce your exposure to these triggers.
- Use your medications as instructed by your GP, even when you feel well.
- Make sure you are using your inhaler (puffer) correctly.
- Follow your written asthma action plan.
Ask your GP for a personal written asthma action plan. As well as being a reminder of your usual treatment, an action plan helps you to recognise worsening asthma and tells you what to do in response. If your child has asthma, give copies of the action plan to the school and to anyone else who regularly looks after your child.
What to do during an asthma attack
An asthma attack can come on gradually (for example, if a person gets a cold) or quite quickly (for example, if a person inhales something they are allergic to, such as pollen).
The symptoms to look out for include:
- increasing wheezing, coughing, chest tightness or shortness of breath
- needing to use a reliever again within three hours of last taking it
- waking often at night with asthma symptoms.
An asthma attack can become life threatening if not treated properly, even in someone whose asthma is usually mild or well controlled.
If someone is getting an asthma attack, follow the instructions in their asthma action plan. If they don’t have an action plan or you aren’t sure what to do, follow the four steps of asthma first aid.
Always call an ambulance in an asthma emergency
In an emergency, always call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance. Tell the operator that someone is having an asthma attack. The signs of an asthma emergency include when the person:
- finds it very difficult to breathe
- is unable to speak comfortably or if their lips are turning blue
- has symptoms that get worse very quickly
- is getting little or no relief from their reliever inhaler
- has no blue or grey reliever inhaler available.
While waiting for the ambulance, continue to follow the four steps of asthma first aid and give four puffs of reliever medication every four minutes.
Asthma in Australia
Some other facts about asthma in Australia include:
- Asthma is one of the most common reasons for admission to hospital for children.
- Asthma is more common among boys than girls in primary school age children. After the teenage years, more women have asthma than men.
- Asthma is more common among Indigenous Australians, particularly adults, than among other Australians.
- Asthma is less common among Australians who were born in non-English-speaking countries than among other Australians.
- More than eight in 10 people with asthma are affected by allergy.
- People with asthma report poorer general health and quality of life than people without asthma.
- Thunderstorm asthma events are uncommon and don’t occur every year. In south-east Australia they can happen during grass pollen season from October through December.
National asthma management strategies
Asthma is a national health priority in Australia. Strategies to monitor and manage asthma in Australia include:
- Asthma Cycle of Care – support for GPs to provide best-practice asthma care for people, including the use of written asthma action plans
- First Aid for Asthma – information about how to obtain prompt medical assistance in an emergency
- Asthma Australia – an association of the eight state-based asthma foundations that provides a range of asthma-related programs and activities, and conducts first aid for asthma training. It also delivers the Asthma Child and Adolescent Program and the Community Support Program
- Australian Centre for Airways disease Monitoring (ACAM) – monitors and reports on airways disease (asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) in Australia
- National Asthma Council Australia – works with health professionals to improve health outcomes for people with asthma and provides a range of information for the community.
Where to get help
This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by:
National Asthma Council Australia
Content on this website is provided for education and information purposes only. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your doctor or other registered health professional. Content has been prepared for Victorian residents and wider Australian audiences, and was accurate at the time of publication. Readers should note that, over time, currency and completeness of the information may change. All users are urged to always seek advice from a registered health care professional for diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.