Types of asthma

Everyone with asthma experiences the condition differently.

People use different terms to describe the different types of asthma. This is because everyone with asthma experiences the condition differently - the underlying causes, symptoms and triggers of asthma, and how they respond to treatment are all different for each individual. This makes it very hard to put asthma into exact categories, but if you have asthma, knowing the different terms is useful. It can help you to understand more about your own condition, what treatment you may need and how you can manage your asthma better.

Your asthma can be defined as one or more of the types below. So, for example, if you have hay fever which triggers asthma symptoms that don't respond to the usual asthma medicines, it could be said that you have severe, seasonal asthma.

Occupational asthma

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

  • your asthma symptoms started as an adult
  • your childhood asthma symptoms have returned since you started working in a particular place, such as a bakery, laboratory or car manufacturing plant
  • you have other symptoms that can be linked to occupational asthma such as rhinitis (sneezing, itchy, runny nose) or conjunctivitis (itchy, red, and inflamed eyes)
  • your asthma (and any other) symptoms improve on the days you're not at work
  • your symptoms get worse after work, or disturb your sleep after work.

If you think you may have occupational asthma, book an appointment to see your GP or an asthma nurse as soon as possible so you can get a diagnosis and treatment, and talk about ways to manage your symptoms.

Difficult to control and severe asthma

About 17 per cent of people with asthma have difficulty breathing almost all of the time and may often have potentially life-threatening asthma attacks. These people fall into two groups, although sometimes it can be tricky for a healthcare professional to work out which group they're in. They either have:

Group 1: Symptoms that can be treated with the right care

About 12 per cent have symptoms that will respond to the usual asthma medicines - they may just need the right support and care to understand why their asthma is not well controlled. They have difficult to control asthma. It is possible for them to live a symptom-free life, if they:

  • get the right support from their GP, asthma nurse or an asthma consultant if they're referred for more tests
  • know how to take their asthma medicines correctly so they receive the full dose, and take all their medicines exactly as prescribed
  • are helped to learn how to spot and cope with all their asthma triggers
  • get any other conditions that impact their asthma diagnosed and treated.

Group 2: Symptoms that don't respond to the usual asthma medicines

About five per cent have symptoms that don't respond to the usual asthma medicines. They are usually referred to a specialist asthma care for their ongoing care and treatment because their asthma is more complex. They have severe asthma. The words 'difficult', 'brittle' and 'refractory' have also been used to describe this kind of asthma in the past, but now most people refer to it as 'severe' asthma.

Within this group there are also different types of severe asthma. For example, eosinophilic asthma is a type of severe asthma which affects about half of all those with severe asthma. Usually affecting adults, the inflammation caused by eosinophilic asthma is unrelated to allergies or allergic triggers. New treatments have been developed which target this type of severe asthma.

Adult onset asthma

You might think of asthma as a condition that starts in childhood. But it's also quite common for people to be diagnosed with asthma for the first time when they're an adult. This is known as 'adult onset asthma' or 'late onset asthma'. This type of asthma is more common in women than in men.

Why have I developed asthma now?

  • It's difficult to say for sure what causes asthma in anyone, and we don’t know for certain why some people develop it in adulthood. But there are some factors that may be linked:

  • Research shows that between nine and 15 per cent of adult onset asthma is caused by work-related factors for example, exposure to chemical irritants. Nursing, painting and farming are among the occupations that have been linked.  You can read more on our occupational asthma page.

  • Smoking and secondhand smoke can raise your risk over time.

  • Obesity might increase your chances of adult onset asthma, although the link isn’t straightforward.

  • Female hormones can be linked to adult-onset asthma and may be one of the reasons women are more likely than men to develop it. Stressful life events, such as family illness and relationship problems, can increase your risk of adult onset asthma. And some research has found people with very stressful jobs are 50 per cent more likely to develop asthma in adulthood.  

What's different about adult-onset asthma?

In older people, symptoms of asthma are less likely to be triggered by allergies, such as house dust mites, animals and pollen. Symptoms in adults are more likely to be triggered by:

  •  flu, colds or other viral infections
  •  exercise
  •  laughing or getting excited
  •  hormonal changes
  •  depression or anxiety
  •  some medicines
  •  irritants, such as cold air and chemical fumes

It can be difficult to tell the difference between asthma and other conditions that cause similar symptoms, particularly in older adults, such as bronchitis, heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), so can sometimes take doctors longer to diagnose asthma when you’re older.  

The good news is there’s a lot you can do to help yourself, so you can get on with doing the things you want to do, without symptoms getting in the way. The aim of treatment is to keep you free from symptoms on the lowest possible dose of medicine. Find out more on our page about managing asthma in adults.

Childhood asthma

Some children diagnosed with asthma find that the condition improves or disappears completely as they get older. This is known as childhood asthma. Bear in mind, though, that it can return later in life. And if your child has moderate or severe asthma, the symptoms are more likely to carry on or come back than if your child has mild asthma.

Seasonal asthma

People who only experience asthma symptoms at certain times of the year are said to have 'seasonal asthma'. Sometimes asthma symptoms are triggered by things that are only around at certain times of the year - pollen is one example; cold weather is another. So while asthma is always a long-term condition, it's possible to be symptom-free when your triggers aren't around. If you think you've got seasonal asthma, or you've been diagnosed with seasonal asthma, speak to your GP or asthma nurse about the best ways to manage your asthma all year round.

Last reviewed October 2016

Next review due October 2019