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Dealing with seasonal asthma

If you only experience asthma symptoms at certain times of the year, or your asthma worsens when it’s very cold or when there’s pollen in the air in spring, you may have seasonal asthma.

‘Asthma is an inflammatory disease of the airways,’ says pharmacist Elnette du Toit of Life West Coast Private Hospital, ‘and many South Africans suffer from asthma, whether seasonal or chronic asthma, without realising it. Even though the symptoms can be managed with the regular use of asthma inhalers, a worrying number of people die yearly because of untreated asthma’.

Causes of seasonal asthma

Seasonal asthma affects everyone differently. Some people find that the cold air of winter sends their airways into a spasm, which causes coughing, wheezing, a tight chest and breathlessness.

In spring, the high pollen count is a factor, especially for the approximately 50% of people whose asthma is triggered by seasonal allergies. Allergy is a common trigger.

During summer and autumn, extreme weather conditions such as heat and thunderstorms can be asthma triggers. It’s thought that hot air and humidity can cause the airways to narrow, just like very cold air does. It’s also possible that there’s a change in the number of pollutants and moulds in the air when it’s hotter.

Signs and symptoms

The asthma signs and symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness or pain
  • Sleep disruption caused by shortness of breath
  • Coughing or wheezing
  • A whistling or wheezing sound when exhaling
  • Coughing or wheezing attacks that are worsened by a respiratory virus, such as a cold or the flu

‘Many people simply don’t recognise the symptoms, have never been diagnosed, or do not use the medication as prescribed,’ says Elnette. ‘According to the South African Medical Journal (SAMJ), by the time they get to the hospital, patients’ symptoms are acute and sometimes problematic to treat.

‘But the blame can’t be placed on patients alone: our health system is overwhelmed with lung diseases such as pneumonia and tuberculosis, and asthma and its dangers are often underappreciated, according to the SAMJ. They go on to say that many patients also do not use asthma treatment correctly.’

How to treat asthma

Elnette says there are basically two ways to treat asthma: reliever therapy or preventer/controller therapy.

‘Reliever therapy is used to relieve the symptoms of an asthma attack,’ she explains. ‘The most common reliever treatment for asthma symptoms is a bronchodilator inhaler, which acts within minutes to rapidly ease asthma symptoms during an attack. 

‘The other type is the corticosteroid inhaler, also known as preventer or controller therapy, which should be used on a daily basis – even if you aren’t experiencing symptoms. These inhalers help to prevent permanent damage to the lungs and play a vital role in acute asthma-attack prevention.’

‘The reliever pumps are often blue in colour, while controller pumps are generally brown. Combination-therapy pumps that contain both a long-acting beta-agonist and corticosteroids come in a variety of colours such as pink, red, yellow, purple or grey. Make sure that you talk to your doctor or pharmacist if you are unsure of the specific colour code of your inhaler,’ she advises.


  • Bronchodilator
  • Short-acting
  • Mean duration (2 Hours)
  • Maximal effect (5–20 minutes)


  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Long-acting
  • Onset of action (2–8 days)
  • For peak effect (4–6 weeks)

Seasonal asthma treatment is about proactively controlling your environment – wearing a scarf over your mouth and nose to help warm the air in winter, for example, or avoiding going outside when the pollen count is high. But in the meantime, you should be adhering religiously to the long-term asthma-management regimen your doctor has put you on – even if you don’t have symptoms. 

Consequences of uncontrolled asthma

If asthma isn’t well controlled on a day-to-day basis, and you only treat the symptoms when you have an acute asthma attack, you can, over time, end up with permanent airway damage.

‘The corticosteroids in preventer inhalers reduce the swelling caused by inflammation and keep airways healthy,’ says Elnette. ‘Over the long term, untreated asthma can permanently remodel the airways and have irreversible effects, so it’s vital that patients adhere to the regimen prescribed by their doctor – whether it’s seasonal or not. 

The information is shared on condition that readers will make their own determination, including seeking advice from a healthcare professional. E&OE. Life Healthcare Group Ltd does not accept any responsibility for any loss or damage suffered by the reader as a result of the information provided.