An introduction to asthma. Your guide to the lifelong condition of the airways
Asthma is one of the most common chronic health conditions in Australia, with about one in nine people affected.
It’s a condition in which the airways are inflamed and narrowed. This leads to symptoms including coughing, breathlessness, wheezing and chest tightness.
This is often in response to triggers. Triggers are substances or conditions that set off an asthma flare-up. These can include pollen, dust, exercise, emotions, cold air, colds and flu, and other viruses.
Asthma is complex and different for everyone. But when you understand how your asthma impacts you – or that of someone you care for – you can take control of your health.
People experience asthma in different ways. The underlying cause is the same though, inflammation and narrowing of the airways.
This is when the tubes in the lungs where the air you breathe in and out tighten.
Many symptoms of asthma relate to breathing and your chest.
Asthma and coughing
A persistent, dry cough without mucous or phlegm is one form of asthma. This can come on at night-time or early in the morning, or in response to irritants or triggers in the air.
Sometimes the sound of an asthma cough has a high-pitched tone, with a wheeze, but it doesn’t always.
A wheeze is a high-pitched sound made by the airways when air is forced through. It can be present in asthma and other conditions. Doctors can listen to the wheeze using a stethoscope, but it can also often be heard without equipment.
This can be a medical emergency. If you are having trouble breathing, contact a doctor or call triple zero (000) for medical assistance.
Asthma can be “silent”, when the airways tighten and narrow without the more common signs of cough and wheeze.
This means the person cannot get enough air into their lungs. Signs of this include distress and irritability, restlessness or fatigue, in the chest and throat sucking in and out movements when breathing, and an inability to finish sentences if speaking.
This can happen when your body is trying to get air into the lungs.
For children, they might not refer to it as chest tightness, instead they might say they feel sick, or have a sore tummy.
Living with your asthma
Most people with asthma can live healthy lives managing their condition. People with asthma benefit from regular asthma reviews and maintaining an Asthma Action Plan to guide their asthma management.
This sets out the steps to follow when you are well, when you start to feel symptoms or symptoms worsen and also what to do as your symptoms ease.
Most people with asthma should be able to gain and maintain good asthma control. Good asthma control means you’re able to do your usual activities with little to no asthma symptoms, only needing your reliever medication no more than twice in a week, day-time symptoms no more than two days a week (not including doses taken before exercise), no symptoms during the night or when waking up.
Poorly controlled asthma means you may be experiencing night-time asthma symptoms, asthma symptoms on waking, needing your reliever medication regularly, your asthma is restricting day-to-day activities; you require time off school or work due to asthma, and/or you have experienced an asthma attack.
This is when we recommend you visit your doctor for an Asthma Review.
You may also like to take the Asthma Control Test and find out your asthma score.
There are many medications for asthma but the most common can be categorised as relievers or preventers. It’s important you know the medications you’re on and how to use them.
Everyone with asthma puffers should use a spacer, not just children. Using your puffer with a spacer gets more of the medication into the lungs where it is needed. A doctor or pharmacist can help you with your puffer and spacer technique to make ensure you are using them correctly.
For more information on medicines and devices, visit our website.
What is a reliever?
Your reliever can come in a blue, red, grey or white inhaler and is used when you have asthma symptoms, before you expect to have symptoms, or in an emergency.
Some people who know they experience exercise-induced asthma take their reliever medication before they start training after they have discussed this with their doctor
Relievers can act in about four minutes to relax the smooth muscle of the airways and reduce tightness.
What is a preventer?
Preventers are important to maintain asthma control. They are often prescribed for everyday use, even for when people feel well.
These inhalers are often orange, red and brown work to soothe the airways and reduce swelling and mucous. But they take time to work. For most people they reach full effect in 2 to 4 weeks and up to 12 weeks in some people. That’s why it’s important to keep taking the medication as prescribed for you.
What is a combination preventer?
These inhalers – that are often pink, purple, red or blue – they are preventers and also contain another medication which relaxes the airways. These are prescribed for people who have asthma symptoms even when they use preventers regularly.
Live well with asthma
For information and support with your asthma, call 1800 ASTHMA (1800 278 462) and speak with an Asthma Educator. https://asthma.org.au/about-asthma/understanding-asthma/asthma-symptoms/
ENT, Bird Healthcare, and AirPhysio are campaign partners of Asthma Australia and have not been involved in the development of this webpage.