What is Severe Asthma?

For people living with severe asthma, saying they have ‘asthma’ is not enough to describe it. Many people do not know severe asthma is a debilitating and traumatic breathing condition. Up to 200,000 Australians may experience life with severe asthma. 

Someone with severe asthma will still have regular asthma symptoms and asthma attacks despite being on high doses of medication. Their asthma does not respond or get better with usual asthma medicines.   

Severe asthma is very difficult to treat requiring high doses of inhaled medication plus special medicines in a lot of cases. People with severe asthma will try a lot of medicines over their life. They will experience persistent and life-threatening breathing problems and need emergency care on a regular basis.What is asthma

The tubes that go into the lungs, your airways, are not smooth and calm in people with severe asthma. They are hypersensitive, which means they react excessively to triggers like pollen, pet dander, air pollution, and viruses. In asthma the airway walls swell, muscle spasms narrow the airway, and they produce too much mucus inside the airway clogging them up. The passage for air to pass through becomes very small, resulting in breathing difficulty – an asthma attack. During an asthma attack, the body cannot move oxygen and carbon dioxide in and out of the body properly. This is a life-threatening event that is terrifying to experience. Many people with severe asthma talk about the trauma of reliving this experience or not knowing when it might happen again.  

Treatments for severe asthma can be tailored when you have the correct diagnosis and receive specialist care. Over the past 10 years, we have seen new, specialised treatments become available for people with severe asthma. These require prescription by specialist respiratory doctors who will need to conduct a detailed assessment of your condition before they are able to prescribe them. If no specialist treatments are suitable, your specialist doctor may be able to work with you to gain better control of your asthma with other available treatments.  

Whilst treatments are evolving, more research and development is needed to improve the quality of the lives of people with severe asthma.  

People affected by severe asthma do not take breathing for granted. They are some of the strongest people we know.

What causes severe asthma?  

There are several factors that may cause severe asthma, but research has yet to determine exactly why some people develop it and others don’t. Severe asthma is more likely to develop in people with asthma who are older, have impaired lung function, but this is not always the case. Sometimes asthma becomes more severe after a respiratory infection.  

Having to think about breathing is exhausting.  Breathing is an automatic or involuntary process, so having to think and worry about it, is tiresome and stressful. 

Listen: Severe Asthma podcast series Episode 1 by Healthtalk Australia.

What Are Severe Asthma Symptoms?

It is not normal to have ongoing frequent breathing problems caused by asthma. Most people can breathe well on the right medicine, supported with a written Asthma Action Plan, if they do not have severe asthma.  

Asthma symptoms happen when not enough air is getting in and out of the lungs and there’s excess mucus being produced. Symptoms of severe asthma are persistent. You will often get symptoms like these at least once a day. 

  • Consistent breathlessness 
  • Heavy or tight feeling in the chest  
  • Wheezing   
  • Continuous cough  
  • Difficulty speaking in full sentences  
  • Constantly puffed doing usual tasks that others can do easily    
  • Often allergic responses to pollen and dust mites 
  • Highly sensitive to triggers including emotions, exercise, cold air, colds/flu 
  • Commonly reported are extreme sensitives to strong scents and smells, chemicals  

Other conditions or traits can make your asthma more severe or even mimic uncontrolled asthma symptoms. Many of these traits are treatable. Identifying symptoms which are not common in asthma will help you and your health care team diagnose these other conditions. This is important because if some of your symptoms are not caused by asthma, asthma treatments won’t help them. Finding the right treatment will reduce their impact on your breathing. 

Common overlapping traits and conditions include:  

  • Airflow limitation 
  • Anxiety and depression 
  • Breathing pattern disorder 
  • Excess mucus  
  • Inflammation 
  • Obesity 
  • Sleep apnoea 
  • Reflux  
  • Vocal cord dysfuncion  

Let your health care team know if you think some of your symptoms might be related to one of these other conditions. 

Listen: Severe Asthma podcast series Episode 2 by Healthtalk Australia

Diagnosing Severe Asthma

  • I acquired severe asthma in 2014 at the age of 65.  I was a fit and active retiree. I caught the flu, and a rhino virus (from grandchildren) and was left chronically ill.Rosemary Koina, Asthma Champion

    “Getting diagnosed was really hard.  I was backwards and forwards to the GP.   Tried a variety of puffers over those 6 months and was still constantly coughing, having trouble breathing.   Finally my GP, suggested that I was “anxious” and prescribed vallium.   I was pretty upset by this and refused to take it. I saw a different GP and he tested for rhino virus, this was 6 months after it all started.   This new GP did the rhino virus tests and spent the time to explain about the different asthma medications and how to use spacers. After months of backwards and forwards, 9 months, I finally saw a specialist. At this point, scans showed I still had fluid in my lungs, 95% oxygen saturation at my best, scarring in my lungs and spirometry showed asthma.  I had spent several occasions in hospital (at least 6 admissions) prior to seeing the specialist…one occasion I had waited nearly an hour to be seen at Emergency and was about to go home…… my oxygen saturation was 87% when I was finally seen. I have averaged 6 to 8 hospitalisations a year ever since until this year. Severe Sleep apnoea was also diagnosed by the first lung specialist in 2015.  

Diagnosis is an often long and difficult journey between doctors, hospitals and life-threatening asthma attacks. But with the right help, this can be reduced.  

Getting referred to a respiratory specialist is the first step in being assessed for severe asthma. 

A respiratory specialist can diagnose severe asthma after conducting a thorough physical assessment, medical investigations and tests. For regional and remote patients, modern telehealth systems can be used to enable specialist reviews from a distance. 

The first thing a respiratory specialist will do is confirm you have asthma.  A spirometry or lung function test will be organised. This is an important part of understanding what’s happening in your lungs, like how much the airflow is obstructed and whether it looks like asthma or explained by a different condition. 

If you have not had a spirometry or lung function test, and you are taking asthma medications, you should arrange one by calling up your doctor.  

The second step is to address any treatable factors that are causing your asthma to remain difficult. Examples of these might be that your preventer prescription needs adjusting or incorrect inhaler technique. Sometimes people don’t use their preventer every day or twice daily as has been prescribed. Addressing this can be enough to get back on track. There may be an ‘add-on’ medicine available which could be effective for you also. 

Other factors may be the role of other medical conditions you might be experiencing.  There are specific health conditions that affect asthma. These are other respiratory illnesses, cardiovascular disease, gastric reflux, allergies and hay fever, obesity, sinusitis and mental health issues. You doctor will help you understand whether either of these are impacting your asthma and what you might do about it. 

Further, they might explore your personal circumstances and lifestyle. Simple things like smoking, diet, weight management, physical activity and your physical environment might be explored with you to see where changes can be made and improvements gained. At this point, you will be having an in-depth conversation with your doctor or even talking with a respiratory specialist. You may need to adjust medicines a few times, which can require you to remain persistent and keep track of your symptoms.  

If all of these things are managed and addressed, and you still have persistent symptoms, your specialist will explore your condition further with the view to diagnose severe asthma. This diagnosis may be important in order to access specialist treatment for your condition.  

Your specialist may look for recognisable patterns in your specific condition to arrive at the best treatment plan for you. 

Some patterns will include:  

  • How often you experience symptoms and flare-ups,  
  • your lung function,  
  • looking for a particular type of white blood cell called an eosinophil or an immune protein in your blood called an immunoglobulin, both of which are connected with allergies 
  • breathing tests that look for signs of a specific type of lung inflammation 

Phenotypes and Severe Asthma 

All of this tells us about the type of severe asthma you might have. We call this your ‘phenotype’ and your phenotype will help your doctor decide which specialist treatment to prescribe you. 

The three currently understood phenotypes in severe asthma (and even more broadly in asthma) include  

  • allergic asthma: indicating asthma driven by allergic processes 
  • eosinophilic asthma: indicating asthma driven by eosinophils in the blood, and  
  • non-eosinophilic asthma: indicating asthma that’s not driven by either allergies or eosinophils. 

Some patients that have overlapping allergic and eosinophilic phenotypes can be described as having Type 2 (or Th-2 high) asthma, which can be approached as its own phenotype. 

From here your specialist will design your treatment plan with you specific to your ‘phenotype’.

Severe Asthma Treatments

There is no straightforward, silver bullet treatment for all people with severe asthma. It will be a combination of therapy and personal behaviours that will differ person to person. Please see diagnosis and phenotypes above. Treatment plans may need to be adjusted over time. This might apply for times when there is a heightened risk, such as pollen season or bushfires. 

Treatments for severe asthma are evolving and are designed to treat the three main specific phenotypes of asthma

People with severe asthma who are deemed to required specialist treatment will have their phenotype assessed in order to determine the treatment appropriate for them.  

Severe asthma medical treatments include: 

Inhaled corticosteroid and long-acting beta-agonists (ICS/LABA) (inhaled) (double combination preventers) 

Double combination preventers (ICS/LABA) are the mainstay of asthma management in moderate and severe cases and work by suppressing the inflammation and sensitivity of the airways (ICS) and relaxing the airway muscles, allowing them to open (LABA). They include: 

  • Atectura (mometasone/indacaterol) 
  • Breo (fluticasone furoate/vilanterol) 
  • DuoResp (budesonide/formoterol) 
  • Fostair (beclometasone/formoterol) 
  • Cipla (Fluticasone /salmeterol)  
  • Flutiform (fluticasone/formoterol) 
  • Seretide (fluticasone/salmeterol) 
  • Symbicort (budesonide/formoterol) 

People with severe asthma usually need to use moderate to high doses of these therapies to control their asthma. 

Inhaled corticosteroid, long-acting beta-agonists and long-acting muscarinic antagonists (ICS/LABA/LAMA) (inhaled) (triple combination preventers) 

Triple combination preventers (ICS/LABA/LAMA) work similar to ICS/LABA but have a third medicine that helps further relax the airway muscle allowing them to open (LAMA) 

  • Enerzair (mometasone /glyucopyrronium/indacaterol) 
  • Trelegy (fluticasone/umeclidinium/vilanterol) 

People with severe asthma usually need to use moderate to high doses of these therapies to control their asthma. 

You may be prescribed an additional inhaled corticosteroid (ICS) to work alongside one of the double or triple combination inhalers mentioned above. The ICS works the same way as in the multiple preventers above (ICS/LABA) and ICS/LABA/LAMA). They are sometimes used to increase the ICS dose on top of the ICS/LABA or ICS/LABA/LAMA: 

  • Pulmicort (Budesonide) 
  • Alvesco (Ciclesonide) 
  • Flixotide (Fluticasone) 
  • Cipla (Fluticasone) 
  • QVAR (beclomethasone) 

Long-acting acting muscranic antagonist (LAMA) (add-on therapy [inhaled]) 

These medicines aid the relaxation of the airway muscles, allowing them to open and are added on to ICS/LABA when needed. They include: 

  • Spiriva Respimat (tiotropium) 

Leukotriene receptor antagonist (add-on therapy [tablet]) 

These medicines act in a different way to block a pathway that causes a typical allergic pattern of asthma. They include: 

  • Singulair (montelukast) 

Monoclonal antibodies (biologics) 

Monoclonal antibodies (biologics) are injections provided either every 2,4 or 8 weeks which block the pathways that cause inflammation (swelling, sensitivity, mucus production) in the airways. 

Biologic therapies are ground-breaking as they interrupt the processes that are regularly activated in a person with severe asthma that lead to the inflammation of the airways. 

Whether triggered by an allergen or occurring due to the body’s own processes, there are a number of immune cells that are connected in what we call an inflammatory pathway, and lead to troublesome inflammation in the airways of people with asthma. The cells of interest for monoclonal antibody therapy are called ‘interleukins’ (shown below as ‘IL’):  

Monoclonal antibodies attach themselves to the interleukins and therefore prevent them from causing the airway inflammation seen in asthma. 

They currently include:

  • Dupixent (dupilumab) 

This can be prescribed for adults and adolescents 12 years and older whose severe asthma is caused by ‘type 2 inflammation’, that is processes triggered by problematic allergic pathways or pathways involving high levels of a white blood cell called eosinophils or high levels of a specific immune protein called immunoglobulin E (IgE) 

  • Fasenra (benralizumab) 

This can be prescribed for adults and adolescents 12 years and older with severe asthma specifically caused by high levels of eosinophils 

  • Nucala (mepolizumab) 

This may also be prescribed for adults and adolescents 12 years and older with severe asthma caused by high levels of eosinophils 

  • Xolair (omalizumab) 

This medicine may be prescribed for adolescents and adults with moderate to severe asthma caused by allergic pathways, as indicated by high levels of IgE 

It may also be prescribed for children 6-11 years with severe asthma caused by allergic pathways  

Macrolide Antibiotics (tablets three times weekly or daily) 

Macrolide antibiotics reduce inflammation via modulation of the immune response and via direct reduction in inflammation. The medicine used for this is: 

  • Azithromycin (this is the generic or active ingredient, where its trade name may vary depending on your prescription and pharmacy) 

Bronchial Thermoplasty 

Bronchial thermoplasty is a specialized invasive procedure that uses heat on the muscles in the airway walls, reducing the amount of smooth muscle around the airway and therefore reducing the potential for severe airway tightening. This procedure may be recommended only after careful consideration of your individual and unique circumstances. Whilst it can be very effective at reducing the number of asthma flare-ups or attacks, improving quality of life, and reducing emergency department visits for asthma, it is an invasive treatment over three sessions, and cannot be reversed. Your severe asthma specialist will discuss this option with you and a different lung specialist to determine whether it’s going to the right one for you. 

Oral Corticosteroids (tablet and liquid) 

Oral corticosteroids are prescribed only if inhaled therapies and other add-on treatments don’t work to prevent severe asthma attacks. They include: 

  • Prednisone 
  • Prednisolone 
  • Redipred 
  • Predimix 
  • Panafcortelone 
  • Dexamethasone 
  • Hydrosorb

Listen: Severe Asthma podcast series Episode 3 by Healthtalk Australia

Disclaimer: Asthma Australia does not make specific treatment recommendations. Treatment decisions need to be discussed with your doctor. We aim simply to give you the information you need to have those discussions. 

Join Our Severe Asthma Contact Lists