Asthma – Learning to Recognise the Signs and Symptoms 

The key to preventing an asthma emergency is recognising the signs and symptoms of an asthma flare-up early.

Although asthma is a very treatable and manageable condition, in some cases it can be fatal without proper attention. If you or someone you know has asthma, having a solid understanding of the signs and symptoms may help you stop a dangerous situation from developing.


Around 2.7 million Australians (11% of the total population) have asthma.

In 1989, asthma caused 964 deaths in Australia. Due to a number of asthma awareness groups and a wide range of educational initiatives, this number fell to 378 in 2011. In order to keep this number on the decline, people need to take the appropriate preventative measures and learn the warning signs of an asthma flare-up.

Signs and Symptoms

During an asthma flare-up the airways become constricted by tightened muscles and the inside lining of the airways becomes swollen and produces thick, sticky mucus. The most common and obvious signs of an asthma flare-up include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Chest tightness
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Dry, irritating, persistent cough, particularly at night and early morning

Danger signs

If you or someone else is having a severe asthma episode you should call 000 immediately. Symptoms of severe asthma include:

  • Gasping for breath having little or no wheeze due to lack of air movement
  • Severe difficulties breathing
  • Only able to speak a few words at a time
  • Anxious and distressed
  • Severe chest tightness
  • Blue discolouration on or around the lips (if skin colour also changes this can be hard to see)
  • Pale and sweaty skin
  • Sucking in of throat and rib muscles
  • Using shoulder muscles or bracing with arms to help with breathing
  • Symptoms rapidly getting worse or frequently using reliever more than every 2 hours
  • Children may become restless, unable to settle or become drowsy
  • Children may also have trouble eating and drinking due to shortness of breath
  • A child may have severe coughing or vomiting

How to be ready

By reading this article you have taken the first step in preparing yourself and becoming aware of asthma flare-up symptoms. Asthma symptoms vary from person to person. If you have asthma you should talk with your doctor to establish what your particular symptoms are. This will allow you to know when you are about to have a flare-up so that you can act quickly.

Visit our asthma course page to learn more about our accredited courses.