Causes & Symptoms of Asthma

Asthma is a chronic condition in which a person’s airways are inflamed, making it difficult for them to breathe. 1 in 9 people in Australia live with asthma, and a person can develop the condition in childhood or adulthood. 

It’s important for everyone in the community, as well as first aid providers, to understand what the triggers for asthma are and how to deliver asthma first aid in an emergency. Being prepared can help save lives.

Also Read: What causes Asthma Attacks?

Common asthma symptoms

The severity and frequency of asthma symptoms vary from person to person. They may even change for a person over the course of their life.

Common asthma symptoms include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest tightness
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Tiredness

For some people, asthma symptoms are mild, not frequent and do not have much of an impact on their day to day activities. For others, symptoms can be severe and frequent, having a large impact on their daily life.

Causes of asthma

Experts say it’s not completely clear why a person develops asthma, although there are several factors which may make it more likely for someone to develop asthma. 

Children are more likely to develop asthma if they are:

  • Related to someone with asthma
  • Born prematurely
  • Born with a low birth weight
  • Exposed to cigarette smoke or air pollution

Asthma can also be developed in adulthood if a person is exposed to air pollution, repeatedly breathes dry cold air or breathes in dust that they are allergic to.

Treatments and medication

People who have asthma should seek professional medical advice about what treatment types are right for them. The types of treatments will depend on the person’s age and symptoms.


There are two main types of medication that are used to treat asthma. These are reliever medication and preventer medication.

  • Reliever medication is used to help relieve symptoms quickly if a person is experiencing an asthma flare up. Reliever inhalers contain medicine, such as salbutamol, which helps open up the airways to make breathing easier.
  • Preventer medication is used to help treat the underlying causes of asthma symptoms and is usually taken daily. Preventer medication often contains corticosteroids which help reduce inflammation in the lungs and lower the risk of an asthma attack.

Asthma prevention

Asthma is a chronic condition, which means it usually lasts a long time. There are no preventions for asthma, but there are things you can do to reduce your risk of developing asthma.

  • Get your annual flu vaccine – respiratory viruses are a common trigger for asthma
  • Manage your allergies
  • Don’t smoke and avoid breathing secondhand smoke from others
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Look after your mental health
  • Get regular health check ups with your doctor

Triggers of an asthma attack

An asthma attack is when a person’s asthma symptoms suddenly flare up or get worse compared to what they usually experience in their day-to-day life.

Asthma attacks can occur very quickly, or build up over several hours or sometimes even days. 

A severe asthma attack can be fatal. You should call 000 if a person is having difficulty breathing, can’t say a single sentence in one breath or their inhaler medication is not working.

Asthma attacks can be triggered by different things, and not everyone with asthma will be triggered by the same things.

Common triggers include:

  • Allergies such as pollen, dust mites or food items
  • Air pollution
  • Cigarette smoke, fire smoke or other smoke
  • Vigorous exercise
  • Viral infections

Looking after people with asthma at school or in the workplace

Since 1 in 9 people in Australia live with asthma, it is important that every school and workplace understands how to support someone with asthma and is prepared to deliver asthma first aid in an emergency.

Every child and adult should always have an inhaler handy in case symptoms flare up. Workplace and school first aid kits should also contain reliever inhalers in case of emergency. 

Placebo inhalers, without medication in them, can be used to train staff and first aid providers to ensure they are prepared to give asthma first aid in a real scenario.

How to deliver asthma first aid

Asthma first aid is the steps you should take when someone is experiencing an asthma attack. Knowing how to give asthma first aid could save their life.

Signs that someone is experiencing an asthma flare up include: 

  • increased wheezing and coughing
  • difficulty breathing
  • unable to speak comfortably
  • blue lips
  • reliever inhaler isn’t relieving symptoms

To deliver asthma first aid, you should:

  1. Sit the person in an upright position. Do not leave them alone.
  2. Give four separate puffs of the reliever puffer. Shake the puffer in between and make sure the person takes four breaths per puff.
  3. Wait four minutes and then give another four puffs if their symptoms have not improved.
  4. If there is still no improvement, call 000.

Be prepared to deal with an asthma emergency

It is crucial to be equipped with the right workplace and school first aid supplies to ensure you can deal with an emergency if it arises. Knowing how to deliver asthma first aid could save lives.