People with asthma have over-sensitive airways that react to triggers that don’t affect other people.


A person’s asthma triggers cause their airways to tighten, partially close up, swell inside and make more mucus.

This makes it hard for the person to breathe in – and even harder to breathe out.

If you or a family member has asthma, it’s important that you know what medicines can help control the asthma and what to do in an asthma attack.

Ask your doctor to talk to you about these things.

Causes of asthma

Asthma can be triggered by:

  • allergens
  • cold and flu symptoms
  • weather changes, such as cold dry air.

Some medicines, physical activities, smoke, chemicals and gases can also cause asthma.

A child who has parents or other close relatives with allergies or asthma, is more likely to develop an allergic condition, which could be asthma.

The chance is increased if both parents are affected.


Asthma is treated with inhalers (puffers). There are four types:

  1. Preventers (used every day) – these reduce swelling and narrowing inside your airways
  2. Symptom controllers (used twice daily) – these are long acting (12 hours) and keep your airways relaxed
  3. Combinations – these contain both preventer and symptom controller medicines
  4. Relievers (used during an attack) – these relax and open your airways.

Inhalers are usually used with a spacer (a clear plastic tube), which helps you breathe the medicine into your lungs. The spacer makes the inhaler easier to use.

Your doctor, nurse or asthma educator will work out the right types of inhalers for you and show you how to use them.

A peak flow meter may be also be used to measure any changes in your asthma control.

Asthma attacks and what to do

Asthma attacks can be mild, moderate or severe.

Mild – the person can speak normally but may have a slight wheeze or mild cough – especially when excited or running.

Moderate – the person may speak in half sentences; their breathing will be difficult and you may hear them wheezing; and they may have a persistent cough.

Severe – the person may speak in single words; they could struggle to breathe; you may be able to see in-drawing (sucking in) of the muscles between their ribs but they may sound quiet (because of reduced air movement, there may be no wheeze). Their chest may feel tight and they’ll probably look pale.

Treatment depends on the type of attack. 

Call Healthline 0800 611 116 if you are unsure what you should do.

Mild attacks

A mild attack may only require 1 dose of reliever (giving the number of puffs your doctor has told you to) and you may get back to normal straight away.

Moderate to severe attacks

  • If you’re having the attack, get someone to stay with you.
  • If you’re caring for someone with asthma, stay with them and reassure them.
If you or your family member is struggling for breath, or unable to speak or cry, call 111 immediately.

Follow the steps below:

  1. Sit upright. Leaning forward allows your chest to expand more easily.
  2. Use your reliever asthma inhaler (eg, Ventolin). Follow the instructions you’ve been given by your doctor or in your action plan.
  3. If you’re not sure of the dose:
    • Take 6 puffs (adults and children), 1 at a time, through a spacer.
    • Take 5 or 6 breaths after each puff.
    • Repeat the whole sequence of 6 puffs after 6 minutes.
  4. If there’s no improvement in symptoms, you need to see a doctor immediately.
  5. Continue to give 6 puffs every 6 minutes until help arrives or until you arrive at a hospital or GP.

Living with

Self care

There’s no cure for asthma, but most people can control their asthma well and live healthy lives.

Medicine from inhalers (puffers) is the main treatment – but there are other ways to help keep yourself well.

  • Know what triggers your asthma and do your best to avoid those things.
  • Take your medicine exactly as instructed by your doctor.
  • Be prepared – know how to recognise symptoms, and what to do in an emergency.
  • Talk to your doctor about an asthma self-management plan – make sure you follow it.
  • Get vaccinated against the flu each year.

In this section

  • Some asthma is caused by allergies. Find out about common allergens like dust mites and pollen, how you can reduce your exposure, and allergy testing. Read more
  • Asthma spacers (or volume spacers) are clear plastic tubes that are used with inhalers. This page discusses how they work and how to use them. Read more
  • Learn about how menstruation, pregnancy and menopause can affect your asthma, and advice for if you’re worried about it affecting your baby. Read more
  • Learn how to recognise asthma in your child and find tips on how to manage it. Read more
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