Asthma

Person using asthma spray image

Asthma is a condition that occurs when the airways become inflamed and narrow, making it hard to breathe. It can cause episodes of wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness and coughing, particularly in the early morning and evening.1 In Australia, asthma affects one in ten children and adults – equivalent to over two million people.2 Understanding asthma can help prevent asthma symptoms and the good news is a healthy balanced diet can play a positive role.


1 National Asthma Council Australia. Symptoms [Internet]. National Asthma Council Australia, Melbourne, 2015. Available: http://www.nationalasthma.org.au/understanding-asthma/what-is-asthma-#2

2 Woolcock Institute of Medical Research, Australian Centre for Asthma Monitoring. Asthma in Australia 2011. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare; 2011. Asthma Series no. 4. Cat. no. ACM 22. Available: http://www.aihw.gov.au/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=60129544677

  • What causes asthma?

    There is no known cause of asthma, but there are certain ‘triggers’ that can set off an asthma flare-up or asthma symptoms. The major triggers for asthma are allergens such as house dust mites, pollens, mould spores and animal hair or fur. Colds and viral infections are the most common triggers and tobacco smoke and cold air can also trigger symptoms.3 Exercise may also trigger asthma, but appropriate medication and warm-up exercises can usually control this.4



    3 National Asthma Council Australia. Australian Asthma Handbook, Version 1.0. [Internet]. National Asthma Council Australia, Melbourne, 2014. Available from: http://www.asthmahandbook.org.au/clinical-issues/triggers

    4 National Asthma Council Australia. Australian Asthma Handbook, Version 1.0. [Internet]. National Asthma Council Australia, Melbourne, 2014. Available from: http://www.asthmahandbook.org.au/clinical-issues/triggers

  • Diet and asthma

    Food is not a common trigger for asthma,5 however sulphite additives (preservatives and antioxidants used in some foods) have been associated with acute asthma symptoms, affecting about 3–10% of people with asthma.6

    There is emerging evidence that healthy eating may contribute to airway health. Recent evidence shows that an antioxidant-rich diet may help reduce the risk of asthma flare-ups and improve lung function.7 An antioxidant-rich diet includes adequate servings of vegetables and fruit each day. People with asthma are also encouraged to eat oily fish such as salmon, tuna, herrings and sardines as these are a valuable source of omega-3 fatty acids.8

    A healthy diet and being physically active is important for all people including those with asthma. An eating pattern that includes a wide variety of foods from across the five food groups will provide a wide range of essential nutrients.

    Here are some tips for a healthy diet:

    • • Fill each plate with a variety of types and colours of vegetables. Aim to meet the serve recommendations for vegetables and fruit according to the Australian Dietary Guidelines.

    • • Select wholegrain rather than white/refined varieties of bread, pasta, noodles, breakfast cereals and rice.

    • • Choose lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, nuts and seeds and legumes.

    • • Get the minimum recommended intake of milk, yoghurt and cheese and/or alternatives.

    • • Eat less junk (discretionary) foods such as fried potatoes, cakes and muffins, alcoholic drinks, soft drinks, energy drinks and meat pies.



    5 National Asthma Council Australia. Asthma and allergy [Internet]. National Asthma Council Australia, Melbourne, 2013. Available from: http://www.nationalasthma.org.au/publication/asthma-allergy-hp

    6 National Asthma Council Australia. Asthma and allergy [Internet]. National Asthma Council Australia, Melbourne, 2013. Available from: http://www.nationalasthma.org.au/publication/asthma-allergy-hp

    7 Wood LG, Garg ML, Smart JM, Scott HA, Barker D, Gibson PG. Manipulating antioxidant intake in asthma: a randomised controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 2012; 96:534-43.

    8 Thien FC, De Luca S, Woods RK, Abramson MJ. Dietary marine fatty acids (fish oil) for asthma in adults and children. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2002;2:CD001283.

  • Dairy foods and asthma

    Dairy foods have often been suggested as a trigger for asthma, and it is not uncommon for health professionals to suggest avoiding foods such as milk, yoghurt and cheese. However, there is little scientific evidence to support this myth. A review summarising the available evidence for the link between milk and asthma concluded that ‘current evidence does not directly link milk consumption and asthma’.9 The National Asthma Council Australia also does not routinely recommend avoiding dairy foods as a way to manage asthma.10 Evidence is still emerging but suggests that fatty acids and antioxidants found in dairy foods may be protective against asthma.11,12 Furthermore, it has been shown that dairy foods do not increase mucus production.13

    Most Australians, however, are missing out on the health benefits that come from consuming milk, yoghurt, cheese and their mostly reduced-fat alternatives as they don’t include enough dairy foods in their diet. It is estimated that nine out of ten Australian adults and most Australian adolescents need to increase their intake of milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or alternatives in order to meet the Australian Dietary Guidelines.14




    9 Thiara, G and Goldman, RD. Milk consumption and mucus production in children with asthma. Can Fam Physician. 2012;58(2):165-66.

    10 National Asthma Council Australia. Australian Asthma Handbook, Version 1.0 [Internet]. National Asthma Council Australia, Melbourne, 2014. Available: http://www.asthmahandbook.org.au/clinical-issues/food/healthy-eating

    11 Lumia M Luukkainen P, Kaila M, Tapanainen H, Takkinen HM, Prasad M et al. Maternal dietary fat and fatty acid intake during lactation and the risk of asthma in the offspring. Acta Paediatr. 2012;101(8):e337-43.

    12 Lumia M, Luukkainen P, Tapanainen H, Kaila M, Erkkola M, Uusitalo L et al. Dietary fatty acid composition during pregnancy and the risk of asthma in the offspring. Pediatr Allergy Immunol. 2011;22(8):827-35.

    13 Wuthrich B et al. Milk consumption does not lead to mucus production or occurrence of asthma. J Am Coll Nutr. 2005;24(6 Suppl):547S-55S.

    14 Doidge JC, Segal L. Most Australians do not meet recommendations for dairy consumption: findings of a new technique to analyse nutrition surveys. NZ J Pub Health. 2012;36(3):236-40.

  • References for this page



    1 National Asthma Council Australia. Symptoms [Internet]. National Asthma Council Australia, Melbourne, 2015. Available: http://www.nationalasthma.org.au/understanding-asthma/what-is-asthma-#2

    2 Woolcock Institute of Medical Research, Australian Centre for Asthma Monitoring. Asthma in Australia 2011. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare; 2011. Asthma Series no. 4. Cat. no. ACM 22. Available: http://www.aihw.gov.au/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=60129544677

    3 National Asthma Council Australia. Australian Asthma Handbook, Version 1.0. [Internet]. National Asthma Council Australia, Melbourne, 2014. Available from: http://www.asthmahandbook.org.au/clinical-issues/triggers

    4 National Asthma Council Australia. Australian Asthma Handbook, Version 1.0. [Internet]. National Asthma Council Australia, Melbourne, 2014. Available from: http://www.asthmahandbook.org.au/clinical-issues/triggers

    5 National Asthma Council Australia. Asthma and allergy [Internet]. National Asthma Council Australia, Melbourne, 2013. Available from: http://www.nationalasthma.org.au/publication/asthma-allergy-hp

    6 National Asthma Council Australia. Asthma and allergy [Internet]. National Asthma Council Australia, Melbourne, 2013. Available from: http://www.nationalasthma.org.au/publication/asthma-allergy-hp

    7 Wood LG, Garg ML, Smart JM, Scott HA, Barker D, Gibson PG. Manipulating antioxidant intake in asthma: a randomised controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 2012; 96:534-43.

    8 Thien FC, De Luca S, Woods RK, Abramson MJ. Dietary marine fatty acids (fish oil) for asthma in adults and children. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2002;2:CD001283.

    9 Thiara, G and Goldman, RD. Milk consumption and mucus production in children with asthma. Can Fam Physician. 2012;58(2):165-66.

    10 National Asthma Council Australia. Australian Asthma Handbook, Version 1.0 [Internet]. National Asthma Council Australia, Melbourne, 2014. Available: http://www.asthmahandbook.org.au/clinical-issues/food/healthy-eating

    11 Lumia M Luukkainen P, Kaila M, Tapanainen H, Takkinen HM, Prasad M et al. Maternal dietary fat and fatty acid intake during lactation and the risk of asthma in the offspring. Acta Paediatr. 2012;101(8):e337-43.

    12 Lumia M, Luukkainen P, Tapanainen H, Kaila M, Erkkola M, Uusitalo L et al. Dietary fatty acid composition during pregnancy and the risk of asthma in the offspring. Pediatr Allergy Immunol. 2011;22(8):827-35.

    13 Wuthrich B et al. Milk consumption does not lead to mucus production or occurrence of asthma. J Am Coll Nutr. 2005;24(6 Suppl):547S-55S.

    14 Doidge JC, Segal L. Most Australians do not meet recommendations for dairy consumption: findings of a new technique to analyse nutrition surveys. NZ J Pub Health. 2012;36(3):236-40.