If you or someone else are having severe trouble breathing call triple zero (000) immediately or go to your nearest emergency department.
What is asthma?
Asthma is a common condition that affects the airways in your lungs. People with asthma have sensitive airways that become inflamed when exposed to triggers. Inflamed airways make it difficult to breathe. This leads to symptoms like wheezing, coughing or breathlessness.
Asthma affects 1 in 9 Australian adults, and 1 in 5 children. However, anyone can develop asthma, even if you didn’t have it as a child.
Sometimes asthma can flare up and your symptoms can become worse than usual — this is known as an asthma attack. An asthma attack may feel like you are not getting enough air. Some people compare it to breathing through a straw. It can happen rapidly, such as after exposure to smoke. It can also happen slowly over hours or days, such as after getting a cold.
A serious asthma flare-up needs urgent medical attention from a doctor or hospital emergency department.
You can have an asthma attack even if your symptoms are usually mild or well controlled. If you have a serious asthma attack, seek care.
If you or another person show signs of a severe asthma attack, call triple zero (000) immediately and ask for an ambulance. If calling triple zero (000) does not work on your mobile, call 112. Early treatment could save a life.
What are the symptoms of asthma?
While asthma symptoms vary from person to person, the most common signs of mild asthma are:
- difficulty breathing
- tightness in the chest
- a lack of energy
You may be having difficulty breathing if you feel breathless, even while resting. You may be unable to finish full sentences before needing to take another breath.
An asthma related cough can occur:
- at certain times (for example, at night, early in the morning, during cool weather)
- after certain activities (such as exercise)
During a severe asthma attack, you may notice more serious symptoms, such as:
- difficulty speaking
- blue lips
- reliever medicine does not help
- feeling very distressed or exhausted from trying to breathe
- deep sucking motions at the throat or chest while trying to breathe
CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.
What causes asthma?
Children are at a higher risk of developing asthma if:
- they were born premature or with a low birth weight
- their mother smoked during pregnancy
- they live in a house with people who smoke
- they have been exposed to air pollution or mould
Healthy adults can also develop asthma after extended exposure to:
- air pollution such as fumes that irritate the lungs
- breathing in dusts that they’re allergic to
Athletes can get asthma if they constantly train hard while inhaling polluted, cold, or dry air.
Common triggers of asthma are:
- allergens such as pollen, dust, food items and mould (allergic asthma)
- smoke from cigarettes, bushfires and traffic pollution
- other irritants such as cleaning products, perfumes, aerosol products and certain workplace chemicals
- physical activity
- infection from viruses
Asthma triggered by physical activity is known as exercise-induced asthma. Asthma triggered by allergens in the air during stormy weather is known as thunderstorm asthma.
When should I see my doctor?
Call triple zero (000) immediately and ask for an ambulance if you notice symptoms of a severe asthma attack.
If you or your child have difficulty breathing, see your doctor. They can:
- provide a diagnosis
- provide treatment to relieve and control your symptoms
- provide an asthma action plan
How is asthma diagnosed?
To diagnose asthma, your doctor may request:
- your medical history
- family details, such as whether your close relatives have asthma or allergies
- breathing tests to assess how your well your lungs are working (such as spirometry)
Children under 5 years of age may find breathing tests difficult. Their doctor may prescribe some asthma medicine to take for a short time. Their doctor can use the results of the treatment to make a diagnosis. If their symptoms improve quickly with asthma medicine, it’s likely that they have asthma.
Your doctor may suggest that you undergo allergy testing, as asthma symptoms can be triggered by known allergies.
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How is asthma treated?
Asthma treatment helps:
- keep your lungs healthy
- prevent asthma symptoms from interfering with normal life
- prevent flare-ups or attacks
Your doctor may prescribe or suggest these treatments.
There are 2 main types of asthma medicines:
Asthma medicines are usually taken as a tablet or using an inhaler. Inhalers can be used with a spacer to make the medicine easier to take. Treatment will depend on how severe your asthma is, how old you are, and your lifestyle.
Using inhalers and spacers properly takes practice. It’s important to learn to use them properly, to get the right amount of your medicine. You can watch the National Asthma Council’s how-to videos on how to use your inhaler.
Asthma reliever medicine helps open your airways quickly to relieve your symptoms during an asthma attack. They work within minutes and the effects can last for hours.
A common reliever medicine is salbutamol (Ventolin). Use asthma relievers as prescribed by your doctor. You or your child may need to use asthma relievers more regularly until your symptoms are gone.
Asthma preventer medicine helps prevent asthma attacks and keep your asthma under control. Preventer medicines usually contain corticosteroids that are similar to the steroids your body produces. These treatments are anti-inflammatory.
Preventer medicine usually comes in inhaler form. It is usually taken every day, depending on how severe your asthma is.
Many preventer inhalers include a combination of a corticosteroid and a long-acting reliever medicine.
Oral corticosteroids, such as prednisolone tablets, are taken by mouth. Sometimes, short courses of oral corticosteroids may be used to help manage asthma flare-ups.
Some people have severe asthma that can’t be controlled, even if they correctly take high doses of treatment. These people may need to be seen by a respiratory physician for more treatment. For more information on the treatment of severe asthma, you can visit the Asthma Australia website.
Avoiding asthma triggers
Asthma triggers cause your airways to narrow and lead to asthma symptoms. These triggers vary from person to person but avoiding or managing them can help to control your asthma.
Having an asthma action plan
If you have asthma, you and your doctor will put together an asthma action plan. This is a set of instructions just for you. It includes:
- a list of your usual asthma medicines and doses
- how to recognise symptoms of an asthma attack
- advice on what to do in an asthma emergency
- your doctor’s contact details
You can view examples of asthma action plans here.
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Can asthma be prevented?
Asthma can’t be prevented entirely. However, there are some practical ways to reduce the risk of an asthma attack and live well with asthma.
- Get vaccinated for influenza — flu and other respiratory viruses are common triggers for asthma.
- Manage your allergies — asthma and allergies are closely linked. Treating allergic rhinitis (hay fever) and avoiding any allergy triggers will help with your asthma.
- Live smoke-free — quit smoking and avoid any second-hand smoke (passive smoking).
- Eat well — a balanced diet helps you to keep a healthy weight. Being overweight or obese makes asthma harder to manage.
- Care for yourself — mental health and asthma are linked. If you have been feeling sad or anxious, talk to your doctor.
- See your doctor regularly — asthma needs to be regularly assessed and managed. Your medicine needs may change over time. Ensure your asthma action plan is up to date.
- Make sure you know how to use your medicines properly.
What are the complications of asthma?
Poorly controlled asthma can have a negative effect on your life. Complications may include:
- fatigue or exhaustion
- poor sleep
- being less productive at work or while studying
- being unable to exercise and be physically active
- reduced lung function
- poor mental health
Taking your medicines exactly as prescribed is important. If you feel that your asthma is affecting your quality of life, contact your doctor. They can review your medicines.
Other questions you may have
Will asthma affect my pregnancy?
About 1 in 2 Australian women with asthma find their symptoms worsen during pregnancy. Don’t stop taking your preventer medication while you’re pregnant. Taking your prescribed medicines is safer for you and your baby than having uncontrolled asthma. Read more about asthma and pregnancy here.
How can COVID-19 affect my asthma?
Experts are still trying to understand how COVID-19 may affect people with asthma. Early indications seem to suggest that people with asthma are not especially affected by COVID-19.
Resources and support
For more information and support, try these resources:
- Call Asthma Australia on 1800 278 462 to talk with an Asthma Educator. You can sign up for Asthma Assist. This service can provide information and asthma action plans.
- Use the National Asthma Council's My Asthma Guide for practical strategies to help you understand and manage your asthma.
- Read more about managing asthma and other conditions during COVID-19 on the Lung Foundation’s website.
You can also call the healthdirect helpline on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria). A registered nurse is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Do you prefer to read languages other than English?
Health Translations Victoria has asthma fact sheets, including first aid plans, in community languages.
NSW Health’s Multicultural Health Communication Service offers translated resources, including the asthma action plan in Arabic, Chinese, Nepalese and Vietnamese.
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: October 2022