What is Asthma?

Asthma is a long-term lung condition of the airways (the passage that transports air into our lungs).  At the moment, there is no cure, but it can be managed.

People suffering from this condition have sensitive airways. These airways become inflamed (also known as a flare-up) when they are exposed to triggers. When the airways become inflamed, the narrowing airways cause significant, persistent, and troublesome symptoms. This often causes breathing difficulties, as it is equivalent to breathing through a very thin tube. In addition, it leads to a medical emergency.

A flare-up can come on slowly over hours, days, or even weeks, or quickly over minutes.

A doctor should always diagnose asthma. Diagnosis usually involves providing medical history and undertaking some lung function tests.

  1. Allergic asthma – caused by allergens such as pollen, dust, food items, and mould
  2. Non-allergic asthma – caused by irritants such as viruses, air particles from smoke, cleaning products, perfumes, and aerosol products
  3. Occupational asthma – caused by workplace triggers such as chemicals, animal proteins, fumes, etc.
  4. Exercise-induced asthma – usually caused by physical activities
  5. Nocturnal asthma – symptoms that worsen at night, possible cause includes dust mites, heartburn or sleep cycle

What Are the Symptoms?

People with asthma experience symptoms because of the inflammation and narrowing of their airways. Symptoms often vary from person to person. The most common symptoms are:

  1. Persistent cough, irrespective of sound it makes.
  2. Wheezing – high pitch whistling sound made by narrowing of airways
  3. Breathing difficulties – sometimes the signs of airways tightening do not result in any sounds (silent asthma) we are familiar with such as wheezing and coughing.
  4. Tightening of chest / Chest pain

If you have any of the above symptoms, visit a doctor to investigate further.

How to Manage Them

Most people with asthma can manage and control their lives so they are unaffected by symptoms.

The best way to do this is by avoiding exposure to known triggers. It is also important to have a written Asthma Action Plan and follow its guidelines every day. In addition, understanding your medications and using them as prescribed.

What Causes Asthma?

The causes of asthma are unknown and researchers continue to investigate genetic and environment factors.

People often have a family history of asthma, eczema, and hay fever. Research has shown that exposure chemicals, particles and gases in the environment can increase the risk of developing this condition.

This includes:

  • Tobacco smoke (especially as a baby or young child)
  • Pollution from bushfires, traffic, and industry
  • Some workplace chemicals.

Some studies have also found that obesity is a cause.

Researchers continue to find out more about what causes asthma and how we might prevent it.

How Many People Have Asthma?

One in every nine Australians have asthma – around 2.7 million of us (1).

It’s more common in males younger than 14 years. However, for people aged 15 years and over, it is more common in females (1).

The rate of asthma among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders is almost twice as high as that of non-Aboriginal Australians. This is even more marked in the older adult age group (2).

Asthma is more common in people living in socioeconomically disadvantaged areas (1).

The prevalence is significantly higher in people living in outer regional and remote areas compared to people living in major cities (1).

More than one in every two children who are younger than 15 years (57 per cent) have a written Asthma Action Plan (AAP) (3).

But fewer than one in every five people who are aged over 15 years have a written Asthma Action Plan (3). This is lowest for people aged 25-44 (16.5%) (3).


  1. Australian Bureau of Statistics 2018; National Health Survey: First Results 2017-18. ABS Cat no. 4364.0.55.001. Canberra: ABS.
  2. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) 2018. Asthma Snapshot, Canberra: AIHW.
  3. Australian Government Productivity Commission (AGPC) 2018, Report on Government Services