What is Asthma? | Western Cape Government

What is Asthma?

(Western Cape Government)

This publication includes information on symptoms, causes and treatment of asthma. It also provides information on the prevalence of asthma in South Africa.

What is Asthma?

  • Asthma is one of the most common respiratory complaints in the world today.
  • It affects approximately one in ten children (10%) and one in twenty adults (5%).
  • It can occur for the first time at any age, even in adulthood.
  • Although asthma usually begins before the age of five years, a few children affected will "outgrow" it during their teenage years but it usually persists if contracted in adulthood.
  • Asthma tends to run in families, as do related allergic conditions like hay fever and eczema.
  • Astham cannot as yet be cured, but if kept under control, those affected will be able to lead normal lives, enjoying full involvement in sport and all other activities.

What are the Symptoms of Asthma?

Cough, wheeze, tight chest, shortness of breath. These symptoms are often worse at night and after activity/exercise.

How Can Asthma Affect My Life or the Quality of My Life?
  • Night time symptoms disturb sleep. Exercise becomes impaired.
  • Work or school days are missed (having a family member or child with asthma also leads to days off work to care for them).
  • Acute attacks and symptoms are troublesome, potentially dangerous and costly.

 What Starts an Asthma Attack?

The greatest tragedy of asthma is that it is sometimes not recognised and treated, in which case the patient undergoes needless suffering.

The exact cause of the asthmatic process is not well understood but it is thought to be triggered off by an allergy or when the lungs are irritated by something in the air.

A viral cold
A viral cold or the flu can make asthma symptoms temporarily worse and this effect may last for up to six weeks after the illness.

Asthma attacks are most commonly triggered by allergies to airborne particles of house-dust mites, grass or tree pollens, fungal spores and skin flakes from furry animals such as cats and dogs. Certain foods and additives can (rarely) also trigger off asthma when eaten.

Pollution in the environment, especially cigarette smoke, car exhaust fumes and certain chemical gases can aggravate an asthma attack. Even children will be affected if they passively breathe their parents' cigarette smoke into their lungs.

Sport and exercise
Sport and exercise, particularly in cold weather, can trigger an asthma attack. However, with the correct treatment asthma can be well controlled so asthmatics should not avoid sport or exercise. In fact about 10% of Olympic athletes have asthma.

Emotions such as excitement, anger, fear and laughter can all aggravate asthma.

Certain commonly used medicines such as aspirin and other anti-inflammatory tablets may trigger asthma. Be cautious with using "beta blocker" blood pressure tablets and eye-drops for glaucoma as they can also trigger asthma in adult life.

Environmental factors
Air pollutants from highly industrialised areas, cigarette smoking, motor vehicles exhaust fumes, changing feeding practices (refined foods) and changing fuel for combustion (anthracites and coal) have been implicated in the increased prevalence of asthma.

Occupational hazards
Prolonged exposure to many substances is regarded to be harmful to the lungs, and by law such occupation-induced asthma is compensatable. These include: organic dusts (wood,grain, grain flour, tobacco), isocyanates, formaldehyde, vapour, fumes (amines), metals (platinum, nickel, cobalt, vanadium), soldering and welding fumes, epoxy resin and acrylic acid and acrylates.

How is Asthma Treated?

Asthma cannot be completely cured no matter what anyone says, but with the right treatment most asthmatics will lead completely normal lives. The aim of treatment should be to make the lungs and breathing tubes as normal as possible so that there are minimal symptoms and as little disruption to ordinary life as possible.

Where Can I Get More Information on Asthma?
Talk to your doctor or pharmacist. Alternatively, visit the Allergy Society of South Africa (ALLSA) website or the National Asthma Education Programme (NAEP) website.

Asthma in South Africa


There is undoubted evidence of a significant increase in the number of people who have asthma amongst all races in South Africa. Over the past 25 years, a 25 to 200 times rise in hospital admissions for asthma has been recorded in hospitals in Durban and Soweto.

Ethnic variations
For decades, allergic diseases have been recognised to be infrequent amongst Africans. Consequently, recent studies have revealed a lower incidence of family history for allergy amongst them. However, many more Africans who have a positive family history of allergy, develop allergic diseases as compared to other races. The early exposure to foreign allergens from the newly adopted Western lifestyle has contributed to the higher degree or sensitisation recorded amongst African infants than others. These factors account for the increased number of African children who have asthma.

Risk of urban living

Studies conducted on rural Transkeians have shown that migration to urban and peri-urban settlements results in a 20 times increased risk of developing asthma symptoms, but asthma is increasing in rural areas.

In Cape Town, Durban and Transkei, grass, cockroaches and cat allergy have been identified as important trigger factors for asthma respectively.

The content on this page was last updated on 21 July 2014