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What is it?

Asthma is a chronic (long term) inflammatory lung disease characterised by wheeze, shortness of breath, cough or chest tightness that varies over time and excessive variation in lung function compared to normal people (i.e. The amount and rate of air that can be exhaled). Australia has a high prevalence of asthma, up to 1 in 6 children and 1 in 10 adults are affected. Asthma is a condition that cannot be cured, but it can be controlled and most people who have it can lead active and relatively normal lives.

With asthma, the walls of the muscular tubes that carry air throughout the lungs, transporting it to and from smaller airway branches (bronchi) are inflamed and swollen which narrows the airway and makes it more difficult to breathe, resulting in wheezing, breathlessness, chest tightness or coughing. The airway narrowing in asthma responds to medications that dilate the airway (bronchodilators) and reduce inflammation in the airway (corticosteroids). These medications are predominantly given as inhalers (relievers and preventers) but corticosteroid tablets may be required for an asthma attack or flare up.

Asthma affects people to different extents. Some people will only use inhalers once a month if they are exercising. Others may need to attend hospital regularly and when they have severe attacks they may be put onto a ventilator.

The exact cause of asthma is unknown, it is a complicated mix of genetics, the environment and other factors. The triggers for asthma attacks will be slightly different for each person. Many people with asthma are allergic to particular substances which are called allergens. Asthma attacks can be triggered in these people if they come into contact with these substances. The airways over-react to allergens in the air such as pollen, pollution, mould, dust mites, animals, particles and fumes. Asthma attacks may also be caused by stress, strong emotional response (laughing, crying, and anger), exercise, and cold air. Medicines such as beta-blockers, aspirin and ibuprofen can trigger attacks. Sulphites found in wine and dried fruit and respiratory infections like the common cold can cause episodes of asthma in some people.

Other lung diseases and conditions can have symptoms similar to asthma. Sometimes other lung disease can occur at the same time as asthma and this may make the asthma attacks worse. Conditions such as GORD (gastro-oesophageal reflux disease, also called acid reflux) can trigger or make asthma attacks worse in some people. There is also significant overlap with asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).

Last Review Date: April 26, 2023

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