Types of asthma

Find out about the types of asthma and how you can manage them

If you have asthma, knowing which type you have can help you manage it better.

Most types of asthma are managed in the same way, with:

Evidence shows that sticking with these basics helps people with asthma stay well.

Dr Andy Whittamore, our in-house GP

For everyone with asthma it is important to try to understand what your own personal pattern of symptoms is. For example, what are your triggers, when do you get more symptoms and when do you get less symptoms.

Allergic asthma

Allergic asthma, sometimes called atopic asthma, is asthma triggered by allergens like pollen, pets, and dust mites. About 80% of people with asthma have allergies.

Read our advice for coping with hay fever, pet allergies, a dust mite allergy, and other triggers.

‘Seasonal’ asthma

Some people have asthma that only flares up at certain times of the year, such as during hay fever season, or when it’s cold.

While asthma is usually a long-term condition, it’s possible to be symptom-free when your triggers aren’t around.  It’s still important to keep following your asthma action plan and to take your preventer inhaler as prescribed.

If you’ve been diagnosed with seasonal asthma, or think you have it, speak to your GP or asthma nurse about the best ways to manage it.

Our advice can help you cope with seasonal triggers like pollen and the weather.

Occupational asthma

Occupational asthma is asthma caused directly by the work you do. You might have occupational asthma if:

  • your asthma symptoms started as an adult and
  • your asthma symptoms improve on the days you’re not at work.

Occupational asthma can be caused by many things. For example, if you work in a bakery, flour dust could trigger symptoms, or if you work in healthcare, latex might be a trigger.

If you think you may have occupational asthma, talk to your GP or an asthma nurse so you can get the right help, including referral to a specialist.

You can also read our advice on living with occupational asthma. This page also includes information about what your employer should do and what compensation and benefits you may be entitled to.

Occupational asthma is not the same as asthma that you already have which is made worse by a trigger at work.

Read our advice on managing asthma at work, and managing triggers such as the indoor environment and workplace stress. You can also speak to your asthma nurse or GP about how to manage any triggers at work.  

Non-allergic asthma

Non-allergic asthma, also known as non-atopic asthma, is asthma that isn’t related to an allergy trigger like pollen or dust. It’s less common than allergic asthma. Non-allergic asthma often develops later in life.  

If your asthma does not seem to be triggered by things like pollen, dust mites or pets, you might have non-allergic asthma. See your GP or asthma nurse, who can help you find the best way to manage your asthma.

‘Exercise-induced’ asthma

About 90% of people with asthma have tightening of the airways caused by exercise.  However, this can also occur in people without asthma.

If you don’t have a diagnosis of asthma, but you’re getting symptoms like a tight chest, breathlessness, coughing, or fatigue during or after exercising, see your GP. They can:

  • test your lung function with a spirometry test. This is to make sure you don’t have asthma. 
  • do some exercise challenge tests. This is usually on a treadmill or other equipment, and is a way to see how your airways react to exercise.  
  • give you treatments to help with the symptoms you’re getting so you can continue to exercise safely. This might be reliever medicine to take before you exercise. 

If you have asthma and it gets worse during or after exercise, read our advice on exercise as a trigger. Exercise is great way to help you stay well with your lung condition. Find out more about how to enjoy exercise and activities safely.

If you need to use your reliever inhaler three or more times a week to stop symptoms coming on, your GP may want to review your treatments.

Difficult asthma

About 17% of people with asthma have what’s known as difficult asthma or difficult-to-control asthma.  

You may have difficult asthma if:

  • you get symptoms three or more times a week 
  • you use your reliever inhaler three or more times a week 
  • you wake up at night because of your asthma one or more times a week 

If you have difficult asthma your GP will help you find a combination of asthma medicines that work for you. You might need to see an asthma specialist to work out why your asthma is difficult to control and look at different treatments.  

Find out more about difficult asthma.

Severe asthma

About 4% of people with asthma have what’s known as severe asthma. Severe asthma is usually diagnosed and treated in a specialist asthma clinic.  

Severe asthma is a type of difficult asthma that doesn’t respond to the usual treatments. Even if your asthma is described as ‘difficult’ and you’re having lots of asthma attacks, it doesn’t always mean you have severe asthma.  

Your GP may decide to refer you for further assessment and tests if:

  • you’re finding your asthma symptoms hard to control, even with prescribed treatments 
  • you’ve had two or more asthma attacks needing oral steroids in a year  
  • you’ve had one or more asthma attacks needing treatment in hospital in a year 
  • you’re using your reliever three or more times a week 
  • you’re on long-term steroids for your asthma 
  • your asthma is affecting day-to-day life or activity levels 
  • you’re waking up at night because of your asthma.

If you have severe asthma, you might need different asthma medicines, for example long-term steroid tablets to reduce inflammation in your airways.

Some people with severe asthma are treated with medicines called biologics. These can help to better control your asthma symptoms and reduce asthma attacks. Read our guide to biologics.

Having severe asthma can make life hard. Read our advice to help you get the right support and treatment and feel more confident about managing your severe asthma.

‘Brittle’ asthma

The old-fashioned term brittle asthma is sometimes still used to describe difficult and severe asthma.

Childhood asthma

Asthma affects around 1.1 million children in the UK.

Some children diagnosed with asthma find it improves or disappears completely as they get older. This is known as childhood asthma.  

However, it can sometimes return later in life.

If your child has asthma, read our advice on managing your child's asthma.

Adult onset asthma

Asthma often starts in childhood, but some people are diagnosed with asthma for the first time when they’re an adult. This is known as adult onset asthma or late onset asthma.

Some of the possible causes of adult onset asthma are:

  • occupational asthma: around 1 in 10 cases of adult-onset asthma are occupational 
  • smoking and second-hand smoking 
  • obesity 
  • female hormones: this may be one of the reasons women are more likely than men to develop asthma as adults 
  • stressful life events. 

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Call our Helpline for support with your condition. Get advice on your medicines, symptoms or travelling with a lung condition, or just call us to say hello.

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