Ten things you might not know about asthma


By Dr Umberto Russo MBBS FRACGP GAICD 

In the after hours, our doctors often provide treatment to patients for asthma flare-ups and complications from asthma conditions. Asthma in Australia is very common, with many in our community requiring asthma services, asthma plans and help with managing their asthma. There are various aspects of the disease people don’t fully understand. Here are ten things you might not know about asthma…

1. More than 10% of Australians (2.4 million) have asthmaAsthma affects approximately one in ten Australians, including children. The highest occurrence of asthma is reported among boys aged 5-9 years (14.6%), but among those aged 15 and over, asthma is more common in females. By 2030, it is predicted asthma will affect more than three million people in Australia. Australia has the second highest number of people living with asthma among OECD countries – New Zealand has the highest at 14% and Korea the lowest at 1%. 

2. Our climate may have something to do with itAustralia’s high numbers of people with asthma may be due to the changeable weather in Australia, and commonly occurring allergenic risk factors, including natural events such as thunderstorms and winds that disperse allergenic pollen, grasses and particles. Damp, humid conditions and periods of heavy rain can also lead to outbreaks of mould and mildew, common triggers of allergies and asthma flare-ups. 

3. Undiagnosed asthma is quite commonAsthma can be commonly overlooked or misdiagnosed in adults, particularly in those over 65 years old. Asthma may often occur because of external triggers, such as respiratory tract infections, aeroallergens, medications or exposure to irritant particles in the workplace. If you think you may have asthma, it’s important to see a Doctor for a professional diagnosis. 

4. Using a spacer improves the efficacy of asthma medicationUsing a spacer is a more effective way to ensure the asthma medication reaches your airways rather than being absorbed by the body. In the airways, the drugs have the desired affect, whereas in the body the drugs can cause unwanted effects such as shakes and fast heart beats.

5. Swimming can help people with asthmaIn the past, swimming was seen as a good form of exercise for people with asthma. While there is not enough clinical evidence to prove that it will improve asthma symptoms, it is true that regular exercise such as swimming improves fitness and may improve lung function in children. Keeping fit is important for people living with asthma, because asthma symptoms are less easily triggered if you are fit.

6. Asthma symptoms can recede for some teens and young adults Some children seem to grow out of their asthma. For others, symptoms go away only to return a few years later. But many people have asthma for life, particularly those with severe asthma. This underlines the importance of teaching young people to manage their asthma.

7. Everyone’s asthma is different and everyone has different triggers

 Asthma affects people differently, and can be triggered by colds and flu, allergies, cigarette smoke, stress, certain foods or additives, medications, cats and exercise. For most people with asthma, triggers are not a problem when their asthma is properly controlled with medication.

8. Food colouring, preservatives and milk do not cause asthmaPreservatives like sodium metabisulfite (220, 221, 222) found in wine, dried fruits, vinegar, grapes and some fruit salads can worsen, but do not cause asthma. Breathing in small amounts of sulphur dioxide can cause a reflex contraction of the bronchial tubes. Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is also known to trigger asthma in some people, but scientific studies have shown this to be quite rare. Benzoates (used in cordials) can sometimes cause problems. Unfortunately, allergy testing is unreliable for confirming sensitivity to these substances.There is no scientific evidence to prove that milk either increases mucus production or worsens asthma! It is thought that patients may have a wheezing reaction to cold drinks (such as milk) because of the cool dry air they are inhaling while drinking.

9. Aerosol chemicals can trigger an asthma attackDeodorant sprays and hair sprays are increasingly being used by girls as young as 11. Aerosol chemicals used in confined areas can trigger an asthma attack. Remember that at least 10% of the population has asthma, and put away your spray!

10. Why thunderstorms can trigger asthmaThunderstorms in spring and summer may cause problems for people with asthma or people who are allergic to grass pollen. This is because dust, pollen and spores get blown around in the gusty winds, and the storms break up the pollen into tiny pieces that, when inhaled, get further into your airways. Keep indoors with the windows and doors shut until after the storm has passed. Your GP should be your first port of call for all your healthcare issues. Only call 13SICK when it’s urgent and you can’t wait to see your own GP. Dr Umberto Russo MBBS FRACGP GAICD is Chief Medical Officer at 13SICK, National Home Doctor Service. He has more than 25 years’ experience both as a General Practitioner and a visiting home doctor, with a special interest in urgent medical care.


The Hidden Cost of Asthma (Deloitte Access Economics 2015)

Do some children outgrow asthma? (Mayo Clinic 2017)

Asthma Triggers (Asthma Australia)

Adult Onset Asthma (Australian Family Physician 2015)