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Asthma overview and symptoms

Asthma is a common lung condition that affects your ability to breathe. It often starts in childhood but it can start at any age.

Treatment and self-management can help control the symptoms of asthma so it does not have a big impact on your life.

Asthma can be serious, especially if it is not well controlled. People with asthma have a risk of severe asthma attacks.

Symptoms of asthma

Asthma symptoms can happen some of the time or most of the time. Symptoms can change over time.

The most common symptoms are:

  • wheezing - a whistling sound when you breathe
  • shortness of breath
  • a tight chest - it may feel like a band is tightening around it
  • coughing

The cause is more likely to be asthma if the symptoms:

  • happen often and keep coming back
  • are worse at night and early in the morning
  • happen in response to an asthma trigger such as exercise or an allergy
  • change with the seasons - for example, they are worse in the summer or winter

See a GP if you think you or your child may have asthma.

Causes of asthma

We are still learning about the causes of asthma.

But you may be at more risk of asthma if you:

  • have a parent or sibling with asthma
  • have other allergic conditions, such as eczema
  • had a severe respiratory infection as a child
  • are exposed to dust or certain chemicals at your work
  • have overweight or obesity
  • are exposed to air pollution

Types of asthma

There are different ways to manage asthma depending on the type of asthma you have.

Living with asthma

Some types of asthma include:

Allergic asthma

Allergic asthma is when allergens such as pollen, pets or dust mites trigger your asthma.

Work-related asthma

Work-related asthma is when exposure to irritants at work:

  • makes your existing asthma worse (work-aggravated asthma)
  • causes your asthma (occupational asthma) - your symptoms may disappear if you avoid the irritants

Irritants can include dust or certain chemicals.

You may be at higher risk of exposure to irritants, if you are a:

  • paint sprayer
  • plasterer
  • baker or pastry maker
  • nurse
  • chemical worker
  • animal handler
  • timber worker
  • welder
  • food processing worker

Contact your GP if you have not had asthma before and:

  • you get asthma symptoms at work
  • your symptoms improve when you are not at work

Exercise-induced asthma

Some people who are not diagnosed with asthma may get asthma-like symptoms after exercise. This is called exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB).

Contact your GP if you have asthma symptoms when you exercise.

Exercise should not trigger your asthma when your asthma is under control.

Childhood asthma

Some children with asthma can have fewer or no asthma symptoms as they get older. This is known as childhood asthma.

But asthma can come back when they are adults.

Asthma in babies and children

Non-allergic asthma

Non-allergic asthma is when your asthma is not related to an allergy. This type of asthma is more common in adults.

Severe asthma

Severe asthma is when:

  • your symptoms are harder to control
  • usual asthma treatments do not work as well

If you have severe asthma, it may take longer to find the combination of treatment that works for you. You may need specialist treatments.

Treatment for severe asthma

Diagnosing asthma

Your GP can often diagnose asthma from your symptoms and some tests.

Asthma diagnosis and tests

Asthma treatments

Asthma is usually treated by using an inhaler. This is a small device that you can use to breathe in asthma medicines.

Asthma treatments

Self-management is also an important part of living well with asthma. For example, avoiding asthma triggers.

Living with asthma

How asthma affects your lungs

Asthma affects the airways in your lungs.

If your asthma is triggered:

  • your airways become swollen (inflamed)
  • the muscles around your airways tighten and narrow your airways
  • your airways make more mucus that can build up in your lungs

This causes coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath.

Airway remodelling

Airway remodelling is when the structure of the airways in your lungs changes. It can happen if asthma symptoms are not treated or controlled.

Over time, the walls of the airways become thicker and the airways become narrower. This makes it harder for asthma medicines to work.

Managing your asthma well can prevent airway remodelling.

Page last reviewed: 8 December 2023
Next review due: 8 December 2026

This project has received funding from the Government of Ireland’s Sláintecare Integration Fund 2019 under Grant Agreement Number 9.