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5 things you might not know about asthma

A woman in hiking gear, wearing a back pack kneels down in an Australian landscape to take a puff from her asthma inhaler

Asthma is Australia’s most widespread chronic health problem and affects one-quarter of Australian children, and one in ten adults.

Despite it being so common, many of us don’t really know what asthma is, what causes it, or how to help someone with asthma. Read on to learn more about the condition that affects more than 2.8 million Australians.

It’s all about the airways

The most common asthma symptom that people are aware of is ‘wheezing’ (a whistling sound when breathing), because it’s easy to identify as an outsider. But asthma is more than just a wheeze, and people with asthma might not always display this symptom.

People with asthma have airways that can be very sensitive to certain triggers, like pollen, dust or mould. When triggered, the airways become inflamed and swell up, they begin to produce excess mucus, and the airway muscles tighten. All of these things mean the person can’t move as much air in and out of their lungs, making it difficult to get enough breath.

The below video made by Asthma Australia shows how asthma can affect a person's airways.

Symptoms or signs that someone might have asthma include:

  • feeling out of breath, or breathlessness
  • a tightness in the chest
  • wheezing
  • and a persistent cough.

The severity of asthma symptoms can build up slowly over time, or come on very suddenly. Sudden, severe asthma symptoms are often referred to as an asthma attack.

Asthma affects all types of people

Common stereotypes of asthma can be pretty negative: nervous kids sitting on the sidelines of sports games, constantly reaching for their puffer. But the reality is that asthma can affect anyone of any age, and it shouldn’t stop them from having a full and active life.

In fact, some of Australia’s most successful sports starts have had asthma, including runner Cathy Freeman, swimmer Kieren Perkins, netballer Liz Ellis, and endurance mountain bike rider Phil Welch.

Asthma is a condition that needs managing, but it can be treated and is certainly nothing to be embarrassed about. With proper treatment, most people living with asthma can do anything that people without asthma can do.

While many children have asthma, it’s important to remember adults can develop asthma, too, even if they didn’t have it as a child. Asthma is more common in Indigenous Australians, in Australians living in inner regional areas and in people living in socioeconomically disadvantaged areas.

Asthma can be life-threatening

Because it is so common, there can be the misconception that asthma isn’t that dangerous. But asthma can be a very serious condition, and should always be treated as such.

In 2020, 417 Australians died due to asthma. In late 2016, over 8,500 Victorians sought help at hospitals after experiencing ‘thunderstorm asthma’, and nine people died as a result of this one severe environmental trigger.

Even if you don’t have asthma yourself, it can be useful to learn how to recognise an asthma emergency. Asthma Australia provides in-person or online training for carers of people with asthma, health professionals and people who work in sport, with children or with the community.

Asthma can’t be cured, but it can be controlled

We currently don’t know the cause of asthma, and there is no known cure for the condition. But, with the help of your GP, and specialists if needed, the condition can be treated and managed.

Children with asthma may ‘grow out’ of the condition, and no longer experience asthma symptoms. It is always possible that their asthma symptoms will return at a later date, however, just as it is possible for someone to develop asthma later in life.

Mould, mites and medicines can trigger it

Many different things can trigger sensitive airways, and triggers will be different for each person.

Common asthma triggers can include:

  • dust mites
  • mould
  • pollen
  • pet hair
  • exercise
  • illness like colds and flu
  • some medicines
  • crying or laughing
  • stress
  • weather, including changes in temperature, cold air and thunderstorms
  • open fires or bushfire smoke
  • and cigarette smoke.

Many people with asthma learn to manage their condition by minimising exposure to triggers, taking regular asthma preventer medicines, using an asthma action plan, and having regular follow-up with their health professionals.

More information

Last updated: 3 May 2017