Types of asthma

Everyone with asthma experiences the condition differently.

Health advice > Understanding asthma 

If you’ve been diagnosed with asthma, understanding which type you have can help you feel better informed about how to manage it. But it can be difficult to know which type of asthma you have. This is because everyone experiences asthma differently, which makes it hard to put it into exact categories.

Don’t worry if you don’t know which type you have: most are managed in the same way, with:

Allergic asthma

Allergic (or atopic) asthma is asthma that’s triggered by allergens like pollen, pets and dust mites.

About 80% of people with allergic asthma have a related condition like hay fever, eczema or food allergies.

If you have allergic asthma your doctor is likely to prescribe a preventer inhaler to take every day and a reliever inhaler to use when you have asthma symptoms.

It’s also important to avoid your asthma triggers as much as possible.

If you’ve been told you have allergic asthma, or think you might have it, 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 always a long-term condition, it’s possible to be symptom-free when your triggers aren’t around.

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.

You might, for example, only need to take asthma medicines during the season when your asthma bothers you most, and for a short time afterwards.

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

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

Occupational asthma is usually a type of allergic asthma. For example, if you work in a bakery you might be allergic to flour dust, or if you work in healthcare, the dust from latex gloves could trigger symptoms.

If you think you may have occupational asthma, book an appointment to see your GP or an asthma nurse so you can get the right help.

You can also read our advice on living with occupational asthma.

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 how to manage triggers that you might come across at work, 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, or non-atopic asthma, is a type of asthma that isn’t related to an allergy trigger like pollen or dust, and is less common than allergic asthma.

The causes are not well understood, but it often develops later in life, and can be more severe.

If you think you 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

Some people without a diagnosis of asthma get asthma-like symptoms triggered only by exercise.

This is often called ‘exercise-induced asthma’, but a better term is ‘exercise induced bronchoconstriction’ (EIB). This is because the tightening and narrowing of the airways (bronchoconstriction) is not caused by having asthma. 

Exercise induced bronchoconstriction mostly affects elite athletes or people doing strenuous exercise in very cold conditions.

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

  • test your lung function with a spirometry test. This is to make sure you don’t actually have underlying 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. Spirometry tests before and after your exercise test can show whether or not you have exercise induced bronchoconstriction.
  • 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 immediately before you exercise.

If you need to use your pre-exercise reliever medicine daily to stop exercise symptoms coming on, or three or more times a week to relieve symptoms, you should review your treatments. Your GP may suggest using a daily preventer inhaler or add on treatments like montelukast and long-acting bronchodilators

If you have asthma and it gets worse during or after exercise, read our advice on exercise as a trigger. You can also find out more about how to enjoy exercise and activities safely.

Difficult asthma

Some people with asthma have what’s known as difficult asthma. Sometimes asthma is difficult to manage because of other health issues you have, including allergies. Or because you have trouble remembering to take your preventer medicine.

The signs of difficult asthma are:

  • Asthma symptoms that don’t go away, even with high doses of asthma medicines and add- on treatments
  • Needing to use your reliever inhaler three or more times a week – one of the warning signs of an asthma attack
  • Frequent asthma attacks.

If you have difficult to control asthma you should be able to find a combination of asthma medicines that work for you, with the support of your GP or asthma nurse.

You might need to see an asthma specialist to work out why your asthma is difficult to control, and look at different treatments.   

Severe asthma

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

You're more likely to be diagnosed with severe asthma if: 

  • You've had more than two asthma attacks in the past year
  • You have ongoing symptoms even though you've been taking higher doses of inhaled steroids, and have tried a long-acting bronchodilator or a preventer tablet (LTRA)
  • You're using your blue reliever inhaler three or more times a week
  • Other reasons for your symptoms have been ruled out by your doctor or specialist. 

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 a new class of 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 really tough. Take a look at our range of advice to help you get the right support and treatment and feel more confident about managing your severe asthma

‘Brittle’ asthma

Some people have heard their asthma described as ‘brittle’ asthma.

This term is no longer widely used, and you might hear severe asthma used instead.

Some doctors, however, still use ‘brittle’ asthma to describe asthma that worsens suddenly or severely.

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, or late onset, asthma.

Some of the possible causes of adult onset asthma are:

  • Occupational asthma: this accounts for 9-15% of adult onset asthma
  • Smoking and secondhand smoking
  • Obesity, although the link isn’t straightforward
  • Female hormones: these 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.

The good news is there’s a lot you can do to help yourself.

Find out more on our page about managing asthma in adults.

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.

Bear in mind, though, that it can return later in life, especially if it’s moderate or severe rather than mild.

If your child has asthma, read our advice on asthma in childhood.

Need more advice?

Call our specialist asthma nurses on 0300 222 5800 (Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm) or chat to them on WhatsApp (07378 606728).

Last reviewed September 2019

Next review due September 2022

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