Did you know that one in nine Australians has asthma? This means there’s a strong chance that your life, or the life of somebody you care about, is impacted by asthma. This article explores asthma information, including types of asthma, symptoms of asthma, how to manage asthma in an emergency, and the importance of developing an asthma action plan with your doctor.

What is asthma?

Asthma is a long-term lung condition characterised by chronic inflammation of the lung airways. With asthma, a person’s airways become inflamed and narrow. As they swell and produce sticky mucus, they experience difficulty breathing.

Asthma can be minor or it can impact daily activities. The severity and frequency vary from person to person. In some cases, an asthma attack may be life-threatening.

Asthma affects all age groups but often starts in childhood.

What types of asthma are there?

There are many types of asthma, some of which overlap.

Allergic asthma vs nonallergic asthma

Allergy induced asthma is triggered by allergens in your environment. Nonallergic asthma is triggered by factors other than allergens. It may include:

  • Allergic bronchopulmonary mycosis – Bronchial asthma triggered by viral respiratory infections.
  • Exercise-induced asthma – This type of asthma is triggered by strenuous exercise.

Nonallergic asthma may also be caused by irritants in the air, stress, drugs such as aspirin, certain food additives, or changes in weather conditions.

Age of onset

Asthma can be classified in terms of adult-onset asthma or childhood asthma. Asthma in children can start early in life, varying from mild, occasional episodes of asthma after exercising or when they have a cold, to daily or continuous symptoms, which limit their level of activity.

How will the doctor determine which type of asthma I have?

In general, a doctor will establish your type of asthma by:

  • Examining your medical history, including your family history
  • Performing a physical examination to inspect your upper airway for signs of allergic rhinitis, check your chest for deformity, or determine the presence of polyps
  • Measuring the amount of air you can breathe in and out of your lungs with a spirometry or lung function test
  • Determining the age of onset
  • Discovering the types of cells involved in inflammation
  • Looking at the results of allergy tests
  • Examining the characteristics of your lung and tissue
  • Observing your responses to past medications

Do I have asthma?

Asthma symptoms in children and adults are the same. Here are the most common signs of asthma:

  • An asthma cough (a dry, non-productive cough)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing (When the small airways of the lungs become narrow or constricted, this can cause a whistling sound when breathing out)
  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Difficulty breathing

In order to be sure, it’s best to have your doctor perform an asthma diagnosis.

What causes asthma attacks?

Exposure to certain irritants and substances can trigger signs of asthma attack. The most common asthma triggers are airborne substances, such as pollen, dust mites, pet dander, mould spores or particles.

An asthma attack can begin abruptly or slowly. A mild asthma attack may seem to go away and return a couple of hours later. In cases like this, the second attack is often much worse than the first.

What happens during an asthma episode?

With normal breathing, the lung’s airways are fully open and air can move in and out of the lungs freely.

During asthma, the airway branches leading to your lungs become overly reactive and sensitive. The linings of the airways will swell and become inflamed, mucus will clog the airways, and muscles tighten around the airways (bronchospasm). This results in airflow obstruction in the lungs, narrowing the airways and making it difficult to breathe.

What are the asthma signs and symptoms?

Signs of an asthma attack include:

Mild or moderate

  • Minor difficulty breathing with short, shallow, rapid breaths
  • Chest retractions (your skin sucks in between or around the chest plate and rib bones when inhaling)
  • A whistling sound when you breathe, especially out
  • Able to talk in full sentences
  • May experience a dry cough that won’t go away

Mild anxiety attacks may last only a few minutes. These attacks can resolve spontaneously or may require medication, typically an asthma inhaler.

What to do: Start asthma first aid


Severe asthma symptoms need medical care right away.

  • Feeling panicky
  • Inability to stop coughing
  • Moderate difficulty breathing
  • Cannot speak a full sentence in one breath
  • Having trouble talking or walking
  • Getting tight neck and chest muscles

A severe episode can last from hours to days.

What to do: Call an ambulance and start asthma first aid


  • Gasping for breath
  • Unable to speak
  • Turning blue with cyanosis (pale or blue face, lips and fingernails)
  • Collapse
  • Rapid movement of nostrils
  • Ribs or stomach moving in and out deeply and swiftly
  • An expanded chest that does not deflate when you exhale
  • Not responding to reliever medication

What to do: Call an ambulance and start asthma first aid

How long your asthma attack lasts can vary, depending on the cause and inflammation in the airways.

What foods are bad for asthma?

Certain foods, such as milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, dried fruit, soy, wheat, wine, beer, fish and shellfish, pickled vegetables, and food preservatives can trigger asthma symptoms.

How can I be better prepared to manage asthma? What is an asthma management plan?

Unfortunately, asthma cannot be cured. This makes it crucial to have your doctor create an asthma action plan to help you stay in control of your asthma.

Your asthma action plan will outline:

  • What medication do I need?
  • How can I tell if your asthma is getting worse?
  • What should I do if my symptoms get worse?
  • What can I have an asthma attack?

If your doctor develops an asthma action plan for you, it’s important to follow your asthma action plan closely. Make sure you carry and take your medications, such as an asthma inhaler.