All About Asthma

Asthma is a chronic disease of the airways that makes breathing difficult
In New Zealand, around 1 in 6 Kiwi's suffer with a respiratory disease. For children, asthma is one of the most common causes of hospital admissions. Respiratory disease is the third leading cause of deaths in New Zealand.

Currently there is no cure for asthma, however there are lots of things you can do to manage it better so that it doesn't impact on your life too much. The first step is to learn as much as you can about the condition and the steps you can put in place to control it.

What is asthma?

Asthma is an inflammatory disease. The lining of the tubes/bronchioles in the lungs are very sensitive and become inflamed – red, swollen and full of mucous. The inflammation is caused by an irritant that is usually breathed into the lungs, eg pollen, fumes, cat dander etc or exercise induced asthma. Your preventer helps to protect those sensitive airways and prevents the inflammation, resulting in fewer, milder or no asthma flare-ups at all.
On exposure to an allergen or exercise (triggers, see below) the muscles on the outside of the bronchioles contract and become tight to prevent the irritant getting further down. The reliever medication relaxes the muscles so that your airways are opened and breathing becomes easier.
Illustration courtesy of Ophea Asthma Friendly website (CA)

Symptoms of asthma

There are 4 key symptoms of asthma. You may have only one of these symptoms, or you may have a combination. They may be continuous, intermittent or periodic:
  • Chest tightness
  • Wheeze
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
Remember, everyone who wheezes does not necessarily have asthma and everyone with asthma does not necessarily wheeze.

What is a trigger?

Triggers are the things that 'provoke' asthma. It is important that you try and determine what the triggers are so that you can try and avoid them, or take extra treatment/precautions before or at the time of exposure. Triggers can sometimes cause an immediate effect and other times they take effect over several hours.
Common allergic triggers include:
  • Animals (cats, horses)
  • Dust mites
  • Moulds
  • Pollens
  • Foods
Common non-allergenic triggers:
  • Cold/flu
  • Exercise
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Temperature changes
  • Medications
  • Dust
  • Perfumes
  • Chemicals
  • Food additives
  • Laughing/crying
  • Emotional stress
  • Occupational
  • Air pollution/smog/fumes
  • Strong smells
  • Pre-menstrual hormone changes

Is your asthma well controlled?

  • Do you experience shortness of breath, cough or wheeze with exercise?
  • Are you needing to use your reliever more than three times a week on a regular basis?
When asthma is well controlled:
  • There is no or minimal asthma symptoms
  • You know which asthma triggers to avoid
  • The reliever medication is used less than 3 times a week
  • You do not regularly wake in the night with a cough/wheeze
  • You do not miss days off school or work because of asthma
  • You are reviewed by your GP every 6 months
If your asthma is not well controlled please call us to discuss or make an appointment with your GP. Asthma shouldn't stop you from getting on with your every day tasks.

What is a reliever and what is a preventer?

You can choose between a metered dose inhaler (MDI) (sometimes called an aerosol inhaler) or a breath activated inhaler dry powder inhaler. There are many different types of asthma medications and many different brands. There are also different devices used to administer the medications. Talk to us or your doctor to determine the best device for you.

Reliever medication works quickly, enabling you to continue your daily routine. However, the reliever does not prevent the lining on the inside from becoming swollen causing risk of blockage and limitation of airflow.

Preventer medication works very slowly, over a period of days to months to reduce the inflammation and sensitivity. Preventers need to be taken every morning and night, every day, even when well to be effective. Preventers are a long term medication that should not be stopped but may be gradually reduced under your doctor's supervision.

What is a spacer?

Spacers are clear plastic tubes with a mask or mouthpiece on one end and an opening to insert the inhaler into at the other end. Spacers are free from your medical centre, but may incur a cost at a pharmacy. When your MDI (metered dose inhaler) is used with a spacer, up to 50% more medicine is delivered to your lungs where it is needed.

Cleaning your spacer

Spacers ideally should be replaced every year if they are used regularly. It is necessary to wash them once per week using nothing scratchy. If spacers are left to retain condensation, mould or mildew can grow creating a very unhealthy device to breathe through. If debri is inside the mouth piece and cannot be removed during washing discard the spacer and replace with a new one. You can request a replacement from your medical centre which you are enrolled in or purchase one at a pharmacy.

Wash your spacer weekly

  1. Remove base only from the spacer
  2. Wash them in warm soapy water (nothing scratchy)
  3. DO NOT rinse the bubbles out, DO NOT towel dry
  1. Leave on the bench to AIR DRY
  2. Replace base once dry
  3. Spacer is now ready to use

Administration techniques

As a general guide:
Age 0-3yrs: Use a mask with the spacer device.
Age 3-5yrs: Mask is replaced by the mouth-piece.
Age 5+ yrs: Continue to use a spacer device!
How to use your spacer with a MDI (inhaler):
  1. Shake medication
  2. Insert into base end of spacer
  3. Place lips around mouth piece to create a seal
  4. Press MDI once
  5. Breathe in and out normally through the mouth 6 times
  6. For further doses, repeat steps 1-5
  7. Listen for the "butterfly" valve clicking when you breathe in and out (with the e-chamber model)
  8. Replace after 12 months of use
Do you need to know more about Asthma? Need to see a Nurse?
Are you struggling with your asthma? Alternatively, you have ideas of how we might be able to help you help us continue working with people and families in the Waikato with asthma or COPD? Whatever it is, please don't hesitate to get in touch.


Kiwis of all ages are dying from asthma each year!

You can help save their lives by supporting us to educate and prevent this happening...
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