Mate huangō Asthma

Asthma is a common condition that affects the airways in the lungs. People with asthma have swollen (inflamed) airways that react to triggers. Find out what medicines help control asthma and what to do during an asthma attack.

Symptoms of asthma

When asthma is triggered, your airways:

  • tighten or partially close up
  • swell inside
  • make more mucus.

This makes it hard to breathe in — and even harder to breathe out.

Symptoms can include:

  • wheezing (a whistling noise when breathing)
  • a persistent dry cough that might get worse at night, in the morning or with exercise
  • shortness of breath
  • chest tightness
  • difficulty speaking.

Types of asthma attacks

Asthma attacks can be mild, moderate or severe.

Mild asthma attack

The person:

  • can speak normally
  • may have a slight wheeze or mild cough — especially when excited or running.

Moderate asthma attack

The person may:

  • speak in half sentences
  • have difficult breathing
  • wheeze when they breath
  • have a persistent cough.

Severe asthma attack

The person may:

  • be unable to speak in more than a few words at a time
  • breathe rapidly
  • struggle to breathe
  • have the muscles between their ribs sucking in (in-drawing)
  • sound quiet — because of reduced air movement there may be no wheeze
  • feel like their chest is tight
  • look pale or have blueness around their lips
  • not respond or be floppy.

Who to contact for medical advice

If you or someone you are with has symptoms that you are worried about:

  • call or visit your healthcare provider
  • call Healthline for free advice 0800 611 116

For severe asthma attacks or significant breathing issues, call 111 for an ambulance.

Danger signs in tamariki

Call 111 if your child:

  • is floppy
  • is very tired or less responsive
  • is not breathing
  • has blue lips and tongue.

What to do for an asthma attack

For mild attacks

A mild attack may only need 1 dose of reliever (inhaler).

Give the number of puffs your doctor told you to and you should get back to normal straightaway.

For moderate to severe attacks

If you are having the attack, get someone to stay with you.

If you are caring for someone with asthma, stay with them and reassure them.

Follow these steps:

  1. Sit upright. Leaning forward allows your chest to expand more easily.
  2. Use your reliever asthma inhaler. Follow the instructions you have been given by your doctor or in your action plan.
  3. If you are not sure of the dose:
    • take 6 puffs (adults and tamariki), 1 at a time, through a spacer
    • take 6 breaths after each puff
    • after 6 minutes, repeat the whole sequence of 6 puffs.
  4. If there is no improvement in symptoms, see a doctor immediately.
  5. Continue to give 6 puffs every 6 minutes until help arrives or until you arrive at a hospital or your doctor.
  6. In an emergency call 111 and continue with your puffer until help arrives.
Remember: 6 breaths, 6 puffs, 6 minutes.

How you get asthma

Asthma is common in Aotearoa New Zealand. It can start at any age. We do not know the exact cause of asthma.

Some people grow out of asthma by the time they are teens.


Asthma can be triggered by:

  • allergens including pollen, cats and house dust mites
  • cold and flu symptoms
  • weather changes, such as cold dry air.

Some medicines, physical activities, smoke, chemicals and gases can also cause asthma.

Family history

Tamariki who have parents or other close relatives with allergies or asthma are more likely to develop an allergic condition, which could be asthma.

The chance of having asthma is higher if both parents are affected.

Diagnosing asthma

You might have asthma if you have chronic coughing, wheezing, or shortness of breath that is not caused by another illness.

Visit a healthcare provider. They will ask about your symptoms and might listen to your chest.

They may test your breathing with a tool like an inhaler (spirometry). You could be given a test to take home to test your breathing and keep track of your results (peak flow meter).

Your healthcare provider might also refer you to specialists to check for allergies, check your lungs or look for other causes of your symptoms.

Treating asthma

Asthma is a long-term (chronic) condition. Managing and preventing triggers will help with symptoms.


Asthma is treated with inhalers (puffers). There are 3 types.

  • Combinations inhalers that have both preventer and symptom controller medicines.
  • Preventers that are used every day and reduce swelling and narrowing inside your airways.
  • Relievers that are used during an attack to relax and open your airways.

Inhalers are usually used with a spacer (a clear plastic tube), that helps you breathe the medicine into your lungs. The spacer makes the inhaler easier to use. This is common in inhalers for tamariki.

Inhalers are usually used with a spacer (a clear plastic tube), that helps you breathe the medicine into your lungs. The spacer makes the inhaler easier to use. This is common in inhalers for tamariki.

Your doctor, nurse or asthma educator will work out the right types of inhalers for you and show you how to use them.

If inhalers are not working

Getting wheezy or short of breath more than 3 times a week is a sign that your asthma is not well-controlled and you may need a different inhaler or treatment.

If you have an asthma flare-up or attack, and inhalers alone are not working, you may need other treatment, such as a short course of steroid tablets.

Self care for asthma

Medicine from inhalers (puffers) is the main treatment — but there are other ways to help keep yourself well.

  • Know what triggers your asthma and do your best to avoid those things.
  • Take your medicine exactly as instructed by your doctor.
  • Be prepared — know how to recognise symptoms, and what to do in an emergency.
  • Talk to your doctor about an asthma self-management plan — make sure you follow it.
  • Get immunised against the flu and COVID-19.
  • Avoid or stop smoking.
  • Stay active.

Asthma and pregnancy 

Asthma can affect pregnant people in different ways. 1 in 3 people with asthma get better during pregnancy. 1 in 3 stay the same, and 1 in 3 get worse.

Keep treating your asthma well while you are pregnant. This will help you have a healthy pregnancy and a healthy pēpi (baby). Asthma inhalers will not harm your pēpi and are safe to use while pregnant or breastfeeding.

If you stop your treatment while you are pregnant, your asthma could get worse. It could also increase the chances of your pēpi having a low birth weight.

Speak to your regular healthcare provider when you find out that you are pregnant or if you feel your asthma is getting worse. They will tell you what to do and help you get the best treatment.

Asthma in tamariki

Many tamariki have only mild asthma. But any child with asthma can have a severe, life-threatening attack.

KidsHealth has detailed information about asthma attacks in tamariki and what to do.

Asthma attacks in children — KidsHealth (external link)

Your child may be given an inhaler (puffer) to treat their asthma. This is the best way to get the medicine into their lungs. The type of inhaler depends on your child's age and how bad their asthma is.

KidsHealth has information about the different asthma medicines and how to use them.

Asthma medicines for children — KidsHealth (external link)

Having an Asthma Action Plan can help you and others who care for your tamariki manage their asthma.

Child asthma plan (PDF, 247KB) —Asthma and Respiratory Foundation NZ (external link)