Asthma in adults

Asthma (mate huango) is a common lung condition that affects the breathing tubes (airways) that carry air in and out of your lungs. Asthma causes wheeze and cough, and can make it difficult to breathe.

This page focuses on asthma in adults. For information about children with asthma, see asthma in children.

On this page, you can find the following information:

Key points about asthma in adults

  1. New Zealand has one of the highest rates of asthma in the world, affecting up to 1 in 7 children and 1 in 8 adults.
  2. If you have asthma, your airways are sensitive and react to certain triggers such as allergens (substances that cause an allergic reaction), viruses, cold or humid weather, exercise and air pollutants such as cigarette smoke.
  3. These triggers cause your air passages to tighten up, swell on the inside (become inflamed) and produce more mucus. 
  4. As a result, the airways become narrower, making it difficult for air to move into your lungs, and even more difficult for air to move out. 
  5. Learning about asthma, what causes it and how it is treated can help you avoid triggers and keep your symptoms under control.
  6. Seek urgent medical help if you have severe asthma symptoms.

(Asthma Foundation NZ, 2017)

What causes asthma?

Asthma is thought to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

Genetic factors

Asthma and allergies are closely linked. About 70 to 80% of asthma in New Zealand is associated with allergies. Often people with asthma also have eczema (allergic skin rash) or hay fever, or have close family members who have asthma, eczema or hay fever. The tendency for these 3 conditions to occur together is known as atopy. If you are atopic, allergies can be a trigger for your asthma. 

Environmental factors

Certain things in our environment thought to have a role in causing asthma include:

  • allergens
  • air pollution (such as tobacco smoke or petrol fumes)
  • workplace chemicals.  

(Asthma NZ, UK, 2021)

What are the symptoms of asthma?

Asthma is ongoing and your symptoms may come and go.

Common symptoms of asthma include:

  • difficulty breathing, feeling out of breath or as though you can't get enough air out of your lungs
  • a tight feeling in your chest like something is squeezing or sitting on your chest
  • wheezing (a whistling, musical or squeaky noise in your chest)
  • a cough, which can be worse at night or in the morning.

If you have any of these symptoms, see your doctor so they can assess if this is due to asthma or something else. 

Severe asthma symptoms

From time to time, your symptoms may get gradually or suddenly worse. Seek urgent medical help if you have any of these severe symptoms:

  • it is difficult to talk
  • your lips and/or fingernails have a bluish tinge
  • your nostrils flare when you breathe
  • the skin around your neck and/or ribs pulls in when you breathe
  • your heart is racing
  • it is hard to walk.

For severe asthma symptoms, you should use your reliever inhaler immediately and call an ambulance on 111 or go to your nearest Accident & Emergency clinic.

What triggers asthma symptoms?

Learning what triggers your asthma and finding ways to avoid or reduce the effects is an important part of managing your asthma. 

Common asthma triggers include:

  • house dust mite
  • infections of the airways, such as colds and flu 
  • pollen or mould
  • pets
  • cigarette smoke
  • weather, such as change in temperature, cold weather or humid weather
  • exercise
  • stress and high emotion
  • chemicals that irritate the airways, such as sprays, perfumes, cleaning fluids
  • some medications (read more about medications that may trigger asthma).

How is asthma diagnosed?

In most cases, asthma can be diagnosed from:

  • a description of your asthma symptoms now and in the past
  • listening to your breathing with a stethoscope
  • checking how your lungs are working with breathing tests, such as a peak flow meter (a device that measures changes in your breathing over the day) and spirometry (a machine that measures lung function).  

In some cases, more detailed testing may be required, such as a skin-prick test to test for allergens or, rarely, a chest x-ray to rule out other conditions.

Once a diagnosis is made, your doctor will prescribe the type of medicines you need to take and will set up an asthma action plan. This plan reminds you how to manage your asthma every day and how to recognise and manage your asthma when your symptoms get worse.

How is asthma treated?

While asthma cannot be cured, the correct use of medicine combined with other self-care measures means that symptoms can be well controlled in most people.

Asthma treatment aims to keep your symptoms under control and prevent asthma attacks or sudden worsening of symptoms, so that your asthma does not interfere with your daily activities and you can enjoy a full and active life.

Generally there are 2 main approaches to the treatment of asthma, depending on whether you are using a budesonide/formoterol inhaler or a steroid inhaler with/without long-acting bronchodilator.  



Mild symptoms 
  • Use budesonide/formoterol when required for relief of asthma.
  • Also called anti-inflammatory reliever (AIR) therapy.
Moderate to severe symptoms
  • Use budesonide/formoterol every day PLUS when required for relief of asthma symptoms.
  • Also called single-inhaler maintenance and reliever (SMART) therapy.

Steroid inhaler with/without long-acting bronchodilator

Steroid inhaler with/without long-acting bronchodilator
Mild symptoms
  • Use your steroid inhaler every day, even when you are not having symptoms.
  • Examples of steroid inhalers include:
  • Use salbutamol or terbutaline for symptom relief when needed.
  • If you are using them more than 2 times a week, see your doctor to review your treatment.
Moderate to severe symptoms
  • Use your steroid inhaler PLUS long-acting bronchodilator every day, even when you are not having symptoms.
  • For examples of steroid inhalers and long-acting bronchodilator inhalers, see asthma medications.
  • Use salbutamol or terbutaline for symptom relief. 
  • If you are using them more than 2 times a week, see your doctor to review your treatment.

In severe exacerbations of asthma, a doctor may prescribe prednisone for a short period which is a tablet to help reduce inflammation. There are other less commonly used medications for asthma prevention such as montelukast tablets.

Flu vaccine

People with asthma are at increased risk of complications from the flu, even if their symptoms are mild or well-controlled by medicine. Complications include pneumonia (lung infection), heart failure and worsening asthma symptoms. The flu is also associated with increased risk of hospitalisation for people with asthma.

  • Ask your doctor about getting the flu vaccination to reduce your risk of flu.
  • The flu vaccine is usually free for people with asthma, if you are on regular preventative therapy.
  • It is best to get vaccinated before the start of the winter season, before the flu enters the community.
  • It’s important to get the flu jab every year because each year the flu vaccine is developed to match the different strains of flu virus you are likely to come across. 
  • Read more about influenza and the flu vaccine.

When to go back to your doctor

  • Keep an eye on your symptoms. If you are getting wheezy more than 2 times a week, it may mean your asthma is not well controlled. See your doctor for a check-up.
  • If you have symptoms of hay fever (allergic rhinitis), such as nasal congestion, runny nose, sneezing and itchy eyes, talk to your doctor about medicine to treat these symptoms, such as antihistamines or nasal steroid sprays. Treating hay fever can improve your asthma symptoms. 

What self-care can I do with asthma?

There are many things you can do to improve how well your asthma is controlled. By working with your doctor or nurse to create an asthma action plan, you can reduce how bad your asthma symptoms are and how often you have them.

  • Understand your asthma and learn to recognise your symptoms and your triggers.
  • Take your prescribed medicine, especially your preventer, every day, regardless of whether you have asthma symptoms or not.
  • If you smoke, try to quit. Try to keep clear of anyone else who smokes and of any other fumes.
  • Ask your doctor about managing allergies if these are a known trigger for you.
  • Use the asthma under control test to check if your asthma is well controlled or not.
  • Use a peak flow meter to take and record regular readings to check that your asthma is under control.
  • Keep active – physical activity improves how well your lungs work, and people who are fit usually find they have less asthma and cope better when they do have it. 
  • Visit your asthma team (your GP, your practice nurse and your pharmacist) regularly. They will review the medicines you are taking and can teach you how to use your inhaler properly so you get the most benefit. 
  • Keep your dust-mite allergy under control.

Read more about an asthma action plan.


Asthma New Zealand provides education, training and support to individuals with asthma/COPD and their families. Read more.

Is there an app for that?

There are variety of mobile apps available for people with asthma. These can be a useful way to learn about and take control of your asthma, eg, they can help you keep track of your symptoms, triggers, peak flow readings and medication. You can also create an asthma action plan together with your doctor or nurse. The Health Navigator app library team has reviewed some asthma apps that you may like to consider. Read more about asthma apps.

Learn more

Living with asthma Asthma & Respiratory Foundation NZ
Breathe better september Asthma & Respiratory Foundation NZ
NZSL videos on asthma Platform Trust, in partnership with Deafradio and Health Navigator NZ, 2022
Family health history Genetic Science Learning Centre, University of Utah, US, 2015
Rhinitis and asthma – combined allergic rhinitis and asthma syndrome World Allergy Organization
Tools and resources Centre of Excellence in Severe Asthma, Australia, 2018


  1. Barnard LT, Zhang J. The impact of respiratory disease in NZ – 2018 update Asthma and Respiratory Foundation NZ, 2018
  2. NZ adolescent and adult asthma guidelines 2020 Asthma + Respiratory Foundation, NZ
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Reviewed By: Dr Donny Wong, Respiratory Physician, Auckland Last reviewed: 19 Apr 2021