Just breathe: 7 things you can do to avoid an asthma flare up

You got this.

Australia has been warned by experts to be ready for more catastrophic conditions and the worst fire season seen in four years. Already, NSW Rural Fire Service have begun ‘hazard reduction burns’ and in doing so, a blanket of smoke has covered over Sydney.

Those suffering with asthma are particularly at risk as smoke and increased air pollution can trigger such symptoms.

Continue scrolling to find out more on asthma and how to manage it.

What is asthma?

Asthma is a long-term lung disease characterised by sensitive, inflamed and narrow airways that react to triggers and hinder breathing.

“When a flare-up strikes, the muscles around the windpipe squeeze tight and the airways swell, making it difficult to breathe,” says Dr Burdon.

Symptoms include chest tightness, shortness of breath, wheezing and coughing. Treatment usually involves learning to recognise your own triggers and taking steps to avoid them, as well as using both relieving and preventative medication.

“Common triggers include dust, pollen, animal fur, smoking, certain foods, medications, colouring agents and infections,” Dr Burdon says.

In 2023, Sydney was surrounded by smoke as a result of backburning.

(Image: Getty)

How can I manage my risk of asthma?

“Asthma can develop for the first time at any age, but if you’ve got a family member who has it, you’re more likely to get it,” he says.

New research from the Australian Bureau of Statistics reveals that women over the age of 55 are most at risk of dying from asthma compared to any other demographic.

“When older people develop asthma, it can be more severe and harder to treat,” Dr Burdon says. “Women over 75 are recording nearly three times the number of deaths than men of the same age.”

While there’s no definitive answer as to why older women are more affected than other groups, Dr Burdon says it’s likely that a combination of lifestyle, biological and environmental factors is to blame.

“Menopause and hormone replacement in particular are two unique features among older women that may play a role in how asthma affects them differently,” he suggests.

Dr Burdon says the key to controlling symptoms and preventing flare-ups is appropriate asthma management.

“It’s about using asthma-preventing and relieving medication and following an up-to-date asthma action plan prepared by your doctor,” he adds.

1. Don’t ignore or dismiss symptoms

“Most asthmatics know the difference between what’s normal for them and what isn’t,” says respiratory physician Dr Jonathan Burdon. “It’s crucial to be able to recognise when your symptoms are getting worse and take appropriate precautions or strategies to reverse the process.”

2. See your GP for regular check-ups

The aim of asthma care is to control your symptoms as much as possible. “While annual GP visits really are essential, you can only get a prescription with five repeats, so it’s worthwhile having a check-up every six months, when you’ll need more scripts,” he says.

3. Update your asthma action plan

A written asthma action plan should be reviewed regularly to ensure you can recognise worsening asthma symptoms and give clear instructions on what to do in response. “Your

GP or asthma specialist will be able to tailor a plan to your individual needs,” Dr Burdon says.

4. Use your medications correctly

Using your inhaler correctly can help you manage your symptoms more effectively. Ask your GP, asthma nurse or pharmacist to show you the right way to use it. “People not taking their medications as prescribed is a common problem, and that’s when they can get into strife,” he says.

5. Talk to your GP and pharmacist

Some prescription and over-the-counter medications can trigger asthma or make it worse. “Always tell your doctor and pharmacist that you have asthma, and check with them before changing or stopping any medication,” Dr Burdon says.

6. Get the flu jab

Influenza and pneumonia are serious conditions that can trigger asthma. “If you get sick, it’s highly likely that your asthma will flare up at the same time, so it’s worth having the annual flu vaccine, which is free for people over the age of 65,” he explains.

7. Quit smoking

Being a smoker makes asthma symptoms worse, and it can reduce the effectiveness of asthma medications. Ask your GP or pharmacist for advice on quitting. Phone 137 848 or visit [Quit Now] (

Is there a cure for asthma?

While asthma medications have been around for decades, research is focused on refining its treatment and working towards finding a cure.

“The most recent developments focus on severe forms, such as eosinophilic asthma, where there are too many eosinophils – a type of white blood cell – in the blood and lungs, which can make symptoms difficult to control and provoke acute flare-ups,” he says.

“There are a couple of new drugs on the market that aim to control the effect of eosinophils and reduce the frequency of flare-ups by either blocking or inhibiting the action

of specific antibodies that cause asthma to worsen.”

For those who find their usual medications are no longer working, there is also a relatively new treatment, called bronchial thermoplasty, which aims to reduce lung spasms by applying heat directly to the airways.

What is Thunderstorm asthma?

“Thunderstorm asthma” is a rare form that you may not have heard of until late 2016, when heavy storms in Melbourne caused severe breathing difficulties across the city.

“It happens when the rain causes grass pollen grains to rupture, resulting in lots of smaller particles being released into the air, which can irritate the lungs,” Dr Burdon explains. “This usually occurs in spring and summer, when pollen count is high, and it can affect anyone, even non-asthmatics.”

As a result of the freak event on November 21, 2016, there were nine deaths across the Victorian capital and more than 8500 people ended up in hospital. There are a number of ways to lessen the effects of these outbreaks.

“Firstly, update your current written asthma management plan, so that you know what to do if your asthma gets worse,” Dr Burdon says. “Secondly, use your preventer medication every day, especially if high pollen counts or storms are predicted. And if your asthma starts to worsen, seek medical attention, either by calling an ambulance or going to an emergency department.”

Related stories