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.

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.

Read more about asthma triggers.

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.

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.

How do I know if I or my child has asthma?

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).

Where to get help

  • See your doctor
  • Visit a GP after hours
  • Ring healthdirect on 1800 022 222
  • If you live in rural or remote regions of WA and don't have close access to COPD education or support, you can take advantage of the free Asthma & COPD Telehealth service (external site). For more information phone 1800 278 462 and ask for this service.

Remember

  • 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.

Acknowledgements
Child and Adolescent Health Service

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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