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Asthma is a long-term respiratory condition caused by hypersensitivity and inflammation of the airways. Symptoms include a cough, wheezing, chest tightness and breathlessness, and can vary in severity from person to person.

When asthma symptoms get significantly worse, it is known as an 'asthma attack'. Call triple zero (000) to seek immediate help if you or someone else has severe symptoms of asthma.

Your doctor can normally diagnose asthma by asking you questions and doing tests. They will want to know when and how often symptoms happen, and if you have noticed anything that might trigger them.

A trigger is anything that irritates the airways and brings on the symptoms of asthma. These differ from person to person, and people with asthma may have several triggers. Common triggers include house dust mites, animal fur, pollen, tobacco smoke, exercise, cold air and chest infections.

Your doctor will also want to know if you have been taking any medicines, what your occupation is, whether you smoke or are exposed to passive smoking, as well as details about your work and home environment.

Visit Asthma Australia's website for more information on asthma, or call Asthma Assist on 1800ASTHMA (1800 278468).

Sources: Asthma Australia (Asthma Assist), NHS Choices, UK (Asthma, Diagnosing asthma, Asthma symptoms)

Just diagnosed

While there is no cure for asthma, there are a number of treatments that can help effectively control this condition. Treatment is based on two important goals:

  • relieving symptoms 
  • preventing future symptoms and attacks from developing.

Asthma can also develop at any age. If you are diagnosed with asthma as a child, the symptoms may disappear during your teenage years. However, asthma can return in adulthood. If childhood symptoms of asthma are moderate to severe, it is more likely that the condition will persist or return later in life.

Successful prevention of 'attacks' can be achieved through a combination of medicines, lifestyle advice and identifying and then avoiding potential asthma triggers.

Patient organisations have local groups where you can meet others who have been diagnosed with asthma and undergone treatment. You may also find it helpful to talk about your experience of asthma with others in a similar position.

Source: NHS Choices, UK (Asthma, Living with asthma)

Living with

With the right treatment and management, asthma shouldn’t restrict your daily life.

Asthma symptoms are often worse at night. This means you might wake up some nights coughing or with a tight chest. Effectively controlling your asthma will reduce your symptoms, so you should sleep better.

If you have asthma symptoms during or after exercise, speak to your doctor. They will probably review your general symptoms and personal asthma plan to make sure your asthma is under control. In general, proper warm-ups and short-burst activities are recommended, as are exercising in humid conditions and breathing through the nose.

Most people with asthma can eat a normal, healthy diet. Occasionally, people with asthma may have food-based allergic triggers and will need to avoid foods such as cow's milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, yeast products, nuts and some food colourings and preservatives. However, this is rare.

Source: NHS Choices, UK (Living with asthma)


Facts & figures

  • Data from the 2007-08 National Health Survey (NHS) showed that:
    • 10% of the Australian population has asthma
    • females comprise 55% of all people with the condition; however, this changes with age
    • asthma was more common in males than females aged 0-14, but more common in females aged 15 and over
    • the prevalence of asthma was significantly higher in people living in inner regional areas compared with those living in major cities
    • asthma was more common among people living in socioeconomically disadvantaged localities compared with those in the least disadvantaged localities.
  • Deaths attributed to asthma have remained stable since 2003 - below 2.0 per 100,000 population.
  • An estimated 411 people died from asthma in 2009.
  • Asthma expenditure was $606 million in the 2004-05 financial year (1.2% of the total allocated health expenditure), with the following breakdown:
    • 59% prescription pharmaceuticals
    • 23% out-of-hospital-costs
    • 16% admitted patient costs
    • 2% research.

Source: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (Who gets asthma, Deaths from asthma, Asthma expenditure)

Last reviewed: 
February, 2013