‘Just a bit of asthma’: Different terms for asthma and what they mean

Young Asian woman with breathing difficulties

Severe asthma, thunderstorm asthma and allergic asthma. It’s all asthma but the experience and symptoms can be different.

When people call 1800 ASTHMA with “just a bit of asthma”, it raises the concern of Asthma Educator Gemma Crawley.

The nurse and asthma expert knows there is a range of different symptoms and experiences of asthma, a lifelong condition of the airways, but when people are waking at night more than twice a week or not being able to do activities the way they used to it means their asthma requires more management.

“Just a bit of asthma can often mean their asthma is not well managed,” she says. “If they don’t do anything about it, then it can lead to a severe flare-up. And that means time off work, time off school, and other health costs.”

There are a few different types of asthma. Often it is a naming issue, for example allergic asthma can be a form of intermittent asthma. Nocturnal asthma is a way of describing someone whose asthma is experienced at night. But it is all still asthma.

There can also be confusion around the terms flare-up and attack. We use flare-up to describe when the symptoms of asthma are coming on. This could be breathlessness or wheeze, or perhaps waking in the night. An attack is a severe set of symptoms that can be life threatening.

Act on symptoms when they start to avoid them getting worse.

To make it easier to understand some of the asthma terms you may have heard from your doctor and understand their differences. we’ve explained them on our website and provided a quick overview on some of the common terms below.

What is severe asthma?

Severe asthma is a diagnosable form of the airway condition that affects up to 10 per cent of the population of people with asthma.

When people have severe asthma, their symptoms are very difficult to control, despite optimal management.

It means people can be doing all the right things. They keep to their written Asthma Action Plan, they know and avoid their triggers, and they manage other illnesses that affect their asthma. But their asthma still limits their airflow and results in severe flare-ups.

Often people with severe asthma have depression and anxiety, and it has a high emotional and social burden.

What is intermittent asthma?

Intermittent asthma is when the airway symptoms are not there all the time, they come and go.

Ms Crawley says children often present with intermittent asthma when they get colds and viruses. This is especially common around back-to-school time when kids are all mixing together again after a break.

The cause is still the same though. The airways become inflamed – the trigger is the virus in this case – and the symptoms of asthma come on.

For people who have intermittent asthma, it’s a good idea to keep a symptoms diary so you can keep on top of it and make sure you can manage asthma. This will also help you identify the specific triggers that might set off the asthma symptoms. You could try downloading the Kiss MyAsthma app.

What is allergic asthma?

Allergic asthma is a type of intermittent asthma where the body reacts to a trigger and the airways become inflamed.

The symptoms of allergic asthma come on when you are exposed to the trigger. These could be things such as moulds, dust, smoke, or pollens.

How much inflammation happens in the airways – and therefore how serious the symptoms are – depends on the volume of the trigger and also how your body reacts. Everyone’s asthma is different.

What is non-allergic asthma?

When people have non-allergic asthma, their body does not require an external trigger for the inflammation, and symptoms.

It is believed the immune system plays a role in this form of asthma, which is more common in older women.

For most people, you can manage your asthma regardless of what type it is.

Visit your doctor for an asthma review and get a written Asthma Action Plan. Then follow the plan with its prevention medications even when you feel well.

For more information about asthma and how to live well, visit our website.

To learn about the different types of asthma, click here.