Asthma Overview

Asthma Overview

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Asthma is a common disease of the airways. It affects people of all ages, from childhood to adulthood and can appear at any stage of life.  About one in nine Australians have asthma, which is often associated with other allergic conditions like hay fever and eczema.

Asthma causes the muscles in the airways to tighten and the lining of the airway to become swollen and inflamed, producing sticky mucous. These changes cause the airways to become narrow, making it difficult to breathe.

Triggers for asthma include a range of factors such as pollen, house dust mites, cigarette smoke or exercise, and it can be associated with a cold.

Asthma cannot be cured, but with good management, people with asthma can lead normal, active lives. If you need to use your blue puffer more than twice a week, it is advisable to discuss an asthma action plan with your doctor.


Symptoms often vary from person to person, but they are most commonly:

  • Breathlessness
  • Wheezing
  • Tight feeling in the chest
  • Coughing.

Symptoms can be controlled, or they can be very serious, and can vary over time. Sometimes people with asthma will have no symptoms, especially when their asthma is well-controlled.

You may have any or all of these symptoms, and they may come and go. They often occur at night, early in the morning, or during or just after activity. If your asthma is well controlled, you should only have occasional asthma symptoms. If you have symptoms or use your reliever puffer more than two days a week your asthma may not be under control and you should see your doctor.

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Risks and Complications

In what is known as an “asthma attack”, symptoms become significantly worse. A severe asthma attack usually develops slowly, taking 6 to 48 hours to become serious. However, for some people, asthma symptoms can get worse quickly.

Having a written asthma self-management plan, developed with your doctor, can help you to know how to best manage your asthma. It can also help you to know what to do in an asthma attack.

In a severe asthma attack, other things may happen such as:

  • Your inhaler (which is usually blue) does not help symptoms at all
  • The symptoms of wheezing, coughing, and tight chest are severe and constant
  • You are too breathless to speak in sentences.
  • Your pulse is racing
  • You feel agitated or restless
  • Your lips or fingernails look blue.

Call triple zero (000) to seek immediate help if you or someone else has severe symptoms of asthma. Until help arrives, continue to follow treatment as per your asthma management plan.


Asthma treatment is based on two important goals:

  • relief of symptoms
  • preventing future symptoms and attacks from developing

Depending on how severe your asthma is, your doctor may prescribe you one or more types of asthma medicine:

  • A reliever medicine – often a blue or grey puffer – relaxes the airway muscles and makes it easier to breathe when you have asthma symptoms. If you find you are using your puffer more often than two times a week, you should see your doctor.


For people living with asthma, management is the key. Your doctor will prescribe the correct medication and explain how to use it. For good asthma management, it is important that you:

  • See your doctor for regular check-ups and work together to manage your asthma. Ask about developing a written asthma management plan.
  • Understand what triggers your asthma – this can be different for everyone.
  • Try to avoid or reduce your exposure to these triggers.
  • Always carry your reliever with you wherever you go.

A range of programs and services is available to support people with asthma.

  • A preventer medicine helps to reduce the inflammation in your airways. It should be taken every day, even when you have no symptoms.
  • A symptom controller relaxes the airway muscles for 12-24 hours, helping to reduce the symptoms of asthma. Symptom controllers are always used with an inhaled corticosteroid medicine (or preventer).
  • A combination medication contains both a preventer and a symptom controller in one inhaler.

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