Health conditions

Asthma

  • All severe or life threatening asthma attacks require urgent medical attention.
  • Always dial triple zero (000) to call an ambulance in a medical emergency, then follow the asthma first aid plan.
  • The common signs of asthma are coughing and wheezing.
  • People have different triggers for asthma such as having a cold, influenza and exercise.

Asthma is a disease of the airways in the lungs. It affects the small airways which are called bronchioles.

About 1 in 9 children and about 1 in 10 adults in Australia have asthma. Children with asthma have 'twitchy' or sensitive airways.

During an asthma attack the airways become narrow and:

  • the muscles in the airways squeeze tightly
  • the lining of the airway becomes red and swollen
  • the airways produce a lot of mucus.
What causes asthma attacks?

Asthma is triggered by a variety of things, such as colds, smoke, exercise and food. Some people will have a lot of triggers, while others may only react to one or two items.

A history of asthma, eczema or hay fever in your family increases your chances of developing asthma.

Cigarette smoke exposure (passive smoking) can not only trigger an asthma attack, but can also cause children to be more likely to develop asthma than if they had not been exposed to smoke.

Read more about asthma triggers.

What are the signs and symptoms?
  • Coughing may be a dry cough at first.
  • Wheezing – a whistling or high pitched sound which may be heard as someone tries to push air out of their narrow tight airways. More about wheezing.
  • Shortness of breath breathing may become quicker and shallow, leading to long, forced breaths out.
  • Tight chest – younger children may describe this as tummy ache, due to the extra work of the ’tummy’ muscle (diaphragm) to help breathing.
  • Vomiting in some asthma attacks, a child may vomit.

Worsening asthma

This may take a few hours to a couple of days to develop. You may notice:

  • sucking in around the ribs, tummy or throat
  • continuous coughing
  • rapid heartbeat
  • increased effort to breathe
  • problems talking because they are so short of breath.

Early treatment may stop the attack from getting worse. Worsening asthma requires prompt treatment. See asthma medications and inhaler devices.

Asthma attack severity guide

Mild attack

  • Cough.
  • Quiet wheeze.
  • Some difficulty breathing.
  • Able to speak in sentences.

Moderate

  • Persistent cough.
  • Loud wheeze.
  • Obvious difficulty breathing (sucking in at tummy or throat).
  • Only able to speak a few words at a time.

Severe

  • Very distressed and frightened.
  • Gasping for breath.
  • Unable to speak more than single words.
  • Working very hard to breathe.
  • Sucking in at the throat and tummy a lot.

Life threatening

  • Unable to move around.
  • Unable to speak.
  • Pale, blue around the lips.
  • No wheeze heard.

All severe or life threatening asthma attacks require urgent medical attention. Always dial triple zero (000) to call an ambulance in a medical emergency, then follow the asthma first aid plan.

How is asthma diagnosed?

A diagnosis of likely asthma is based on:

  • multiple wheezing episodes (you can have 2 to 3 wheezy episodes and not be diagnosed with asthma)
  • family history of asthma, eczema or hay fever
  • the cough and wheeze improve with asthma reliever medication (blue puffer).
Is your asthma under control?

See your doctor to look at ways of getting better control of your asthma if you have any of the following symptoms when you feel well:

  • coughing at night
  • chest tightness first thing in the morning
  • waking up tired or falling asleep during the day
  • cough or wheeze with exercise
  • unable to keep up with others when you exercise due to asthma
  • using reliever medication (blue puffer) more than twice a week, not including before exercise
  • missing school or work because of asthma
  • requiring multiple GP/hospital visits because of asthma symptoms
  • requiring multiple courses of oral steroids to treat severe attacks.
Asthma first aid plan

All severe or life threatening asthma attacks require urgent medical attention.

Always dial triple zero (000) to call an ambulance in a medical emergency, then:

  1. Sit the person upright and reassure them. Do not leave them alone.
  2. Give one puff of the blue reliever medication. Take 4 breaths in and out. Use the puffer on its own if no spacer is available.
  3. Repeat 3 times, so that you have given a total of 4 puffs.
  4. Wait 4 minutes.
  5. Keep giving the blue reliever medication one puff at a time until the ambulance arrives.

Where to get help

  • See your doctor
  • Visit a GP after hours
  • Ring healthdirect on 1800 022 222
  • You can take advantage of Asthma WA's free Asthma and COPD Telehealth service (external site) for education and support. This service is provided across metropolitan and regional Western Australia. For more information phone 1800 278 462 and ask for this service.

Acknowledgements

Child and Adolescent Health Service – Community Health (CAHS CH)


This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

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