Asthma - Institute for Respiratory Health


What is asthma?

Asthma is a common, long-term respiratory disease. It affects about 2.5 million people in Australia according to the Australian Bureau of statistics.

People with asthma have very sensitive airways that become inflamed and tighten when they breathe in anything that irritates them. This can cause chest tightness and wheezing and make it harder to breathe.

Sometimes mucus also builds up which can make the airways narrower, making it harder to breathe.

Asthma symptoms

Asthma is a life-threatening disease, but it can be managed to minimise symptoms so people living with asthma can be active and healthy. Symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing – making a noise like a whistle when you breathe out
  • Tightness in the chest and
  • coughing.

Sometimes the airways only narrow a little, resulting in mild symptoms. But some people’s airways can become so narrow that they can’t get enough oxygen into their lungs and their bloodstream. This is very dangerous and requires immediate medical attention.

What to do if you have an asthma attack

  • Sit upright
  • Take long, deep breaths
  • Stay calm
  • Get away from a trigger – dust, cigarette smoke or chemicals for example
  • Take a hot caffeinated beverage
  • Seek emergency medical help – refer to the asthma attack severity guide.

Talk to your general practitioner if you are experiencing any of the above symptoms. The sooner you begin treating your asthma, the less damage you will cause to your lungs in the long run.

Asthma causes

We still don’t know what the exact cause of asthma is. Usually it’s related to someone’s predisposition to the condition because of genetic family history. But there are various triggers that can increase the risk of asthma. Some of these are:

  • Viral infections – colds and flu
  • Climate and temperature changes (cold air in particular)
  • Acute stress and emotional factors
  • Exercise and strenuous activity
  • Allergens (like dust mites, cats and other animal dander, grass and tree pollens, moulds, cockroaches)
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (heartburn)
  • Certain medications such as aspirin and anti-inflammatory medications and beta-blockers
  • Certain foods and food preservatives, although this is uncommon
  • Various chemicals in the workplace
  • Wood smoke and bush fires
  • Air pollution.

Asthma treatments

There are several types of medicines available to treat asthma. The most common form of treatment is medication taken through an inhaler, also called a pump, or a puffer. As everyone’s asthma is different you will need to work with your general practitioner to establish the best treatment plan based on your symptoms and needs.

After you start taking medication you will be able to:

  • Breathe better
  • Do more of the things you want to do
  • Have less asthma symptoms.

Many good treatments for asthma are available today. It’s important to follow your general practitioner’s advice about your treatment.

Asthma research

Asthma research helps us understand how the disease is caused, how it develops and how it can be best treated.

Our Clinical Trials Unit undertakes asthma studies to explore new ways to prevent the disease and improve the quality of everyday life for those diagnosed with asthma.

Other information can be found at the Asthma Foundation of WALung Foundation Australia and Healthdirect Australia

Lyndell’s Story

I’ve stopped breathing on too many occasions

Lyndell Gore never completely understood how to deal with her severe asthma, until she was brought into the care of an Institute for Respiratory Health lung specialist.

With the desire to live a regular life, Lyndell’s youth was a particularly difficult period. “One time I remember I regained consciousness to find my clothes had been cut off so the medical staff could use equipment to save my life. I was 21. I’ve stopped breathing on too many occasions. Experiences such as this help you to value life and realize just how fragile we are.”

Severe asthma is a condition where the muscles around the walls of the airways tighten and become narrow, and the lining becomes inflamed and starts to swell. This causes a severe difficulty in breathing.

Lyndell was in search of answers and wanted to be better equipped to handle her condition on a day to day basis. She came into contact with lung specialist Prof Phil Thompson, who is also a researcher for the Institute for Respiratory Health. She was then directed to participate to try a new drug as a part of the Institute’s Clinical Trials Unit. She commented on her experience:

“The Institute for Respiratory Health has become like a second family. The exceptional staff in the Clinical Trials Unit continue to be an imperative part of my treatment on a physical and emotional level.”

“I believe the work done at the Institute is invaluable. If such vital research can improve community awareness, understanding and treatment, people may not need to endure the health issues I have. I am delighted to share my story for such a prominent organisation leading the way in lung disease.”

For more information on clinical trials click here.

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