Asthma is a common lung condition that affects the ability to breathe. This might mean difficulties breathing from time to time, or breathing problems most of the time.

It affects people of all ages and often starts in childhood.

There is risk of severe asthma attacks, which can be life-threatening.

There's no cure for asthma. But there are treatments that can help keep the symptoms under control so it doesn't have a big impact on your life.


The most common symptoms of asthma are:

  • wheezing - a whistling sound when breathing

  • shortness of breath

  • a tight chest - it may feel like a band is tightening around it

  • coughing

Many things can cause these symptoms. But they're more likely to be asthma if they:

  • happen often and keep coming back

  • are worse at night and early in the morning

  • seem to happen in response to an asthma trigger like exercise or an allergy, such as pollen or animal fur

Asthma attacks

Asthma can sometimes get worse for a short time. This is known as an asthma attack. It can happen suddenly, or gradually over a few days.

Signs of a severe asthma attack include:

  • wheezing, coughing and chest tightness becoming severe and constant

  • being too breathless to eat, speak or sleep

  • breathing faster

  • a fast heartbeat

  • drowsiness, confusion, exhaustion or dizziness

  • blue lips or fingers

  • fainting

Causes and triggers of asthma

People with asthma have swollen (inflamed) and "sensitive" airways that become narrow in response to certain triggers.

Asthma symptoms can happen after exposure to a trigger. Sometimes your symptoms might start immediately. But sometimes they might not start until a few hours after exposure.

Keep a diary to keep track of your asthma symptoms and attacks. This can help you work out what triggers an attack.

When you know your triggers, avoiding them can help you control your symptoms. It can be hard to figure this out, but it will help you prevent asthma attacks.

Asthma triggers can include:

  • illnesses - viral and bacterial

  • lifestyle factors - food, cigarette smoke, stress

  • allergies - pets and animals, pollen, dust mites

  • environment - pollution, weather, indoor environment, damp and mould, the workplace

You can reduce your chance of having an asthma attack by using your preventer inhaler properly. You should bring your reliever inhaler with you in case you need it.

Diagnosing asthma

Asthma can usually be diagnosed from your symptoms and some simple breathing tests.

Treating asthma

There's no cure for asthma. But treatment can help control the symptoms so you're able to live a normal, active life.

Asthma is usually treated by using an inhaler. This a small device that you can use to breathe in medicines.

You might need tablets and other treatments if your asthma is more severe.

You'll usually create an asthma action plan with your GP or asthma nurse.


The 2 main types of inhalers are:

  • reliever inhalers - help relieve symptoms when they happen

  • preventer inhalers - stop symptoms developing

Some people may need a combination inhaler. This is an inhaler that does both.

Reliever inhalers

Your reliever inhaler is usually blue. They help to open your airways when you're having an asthma attack. You should always carry it with you in case you need it.

Reliever inhalers work by relaxing your airways to make them wider, so that you can breathe during an asthma attack.

Your doctor will prescribe a reliever inhaler for you. You can get the inhaler in a pharmacy with a prescription.

Make sure you get a new prescription before your reliever inhaler runs out.

Some inhalers have a counter or an indicator to show how many doses are left. When these turn red, it’s time to get a new prescription.

Reliever inhalers do not have many side effects. But sometimes they can cause shaking or a fast heartbeat. This can happen for a few minutes after you've used them.
Talk to your GP if you need this inhaler more than 3 times a week. They might advise that you also use a preventer inhaler

Steroid inhalers (preventer)

A preventer inhaler is taken every day even if you think your asthma is okay.

Most people need to take their preventer inhaler twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening.

Preventer inhalers contain steroids. It works by reducing the inflammation in your airways.

It does not work immediately. But over time it will help you avoid asthma attacks. It can take 2 weeks to work for adults.

These inhalers can cause side effects including:

  • a sore throat

  • oral thrush

  • a hoarse voice

You can help prevent these side effects by rinsing your mouth after using your inhaler and by using a spacer.

A spacer is a hollow plastic tube you attach to your inhaler. It holds the cloud of medicine in the tube long enough for you to inhale it in 1 or 2 slow, deep breaths.

Using a spacer will improve the amount of medicine that reaches your airways.  

Asthma action plan.

An asthma action plan helps you to manage your asthma.

You make this plan with your doctor (this could be your GP or hospital doctor) or practice nurse.

The plan includes information on:

  • your prescriptions and how to take them

  • how to control your symptoms

  • what to do if you have an asthma attack

  • how to know if your symptoms are getting worse and what to do

  • emergency contact information

You should keep your asthma action plan up to date.

Add information about any visits to your GP and the emergency department (ED), and any changes to your prescriptions.

Get your doctor to check your plan at your asthma review appointment. You should have a review appointment once a year.

Share your asthma action plan with family, people at work, your sports team, or people at your gym. That way they can know what to do if you have an asthma attack.

Put a monthly reminder in your phone or diary to check that:

  • you’re taking your medicines

  • you know what to do if your symptoms get worse