Chronic respiratory conditions - including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

Chronic respiratory conditions, of which asthma and COPD are most common, are thought to affect more than a quarter of the general population of Australia.

Page last updated: 09 January 2015

What are chronic respiratory conditions?

Chronic respiratory conditions include asthma, allergy, hayfever (allergic rhinitis) and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It can be difficult to distinguish COPD from asthma because the symptoms of both conditions can be similar. The current definitions of asthma and COPD overlap. However, there are some important features that distinguish typical COPD from asthma. People with COPD continue to lose lung function despite taking medication, which is not a common feature of asthma.


Asthma is a common chronic inflammatory condition of the airways. People with asthma experience episodes of wheezing, breathlessness and chest tightness due to widespread narrowing of the airways.

Asthma episodes can be triggered by viral infections, exposure to specific allergens, irritants such as tobacco smoke and other air pollutants, exercise and some food chemicals or additives. The underlying causes of asthma are still not well understood.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

COPD is a serious, progressive and disabling condition that limits airflow in the lungs. People with COPD are prone to severe episodes of shortness of breath, with fits of coughing. The terms COPD, emphysema (damaged lung tissue) and chronic bronchitis (indicated by a frequent cough caused by excessive mucus production) are sometimes used interchangeably however COPD is the current preferred medical term that includes both conditions.

COPD may also be associated with other chronic conditions such as asthma, respiratory cancers, diabetes and diseases of the heart and blood vessels due to shared risk factors and the effect of COPD on other parts of the body. Top of page

How common are chronic respiratory conditions?

In 2011-12, 6.3 million Australians were estimated to have a chronic respiratory condition, according to self-reporting in the Australian Health Survey (AHS). This includes nearly 2.3 million people with asthma, around 530,000 people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, 3.7 million people with allergic rhinitis (hayfever) and 1.9 million people with chronic sinusitis (source 1).

There is no significant difference between the numbers of males and females estimated to have a disease of the respiratory system.


  • In 2011-12, around 2.3 million Australians were estimated to have asthma as a result of self-reporting through the AHS, representing 10.2 % of the population. The rate of asthma has remained relatively steady since 2007-08 (10%) (source 1).
  • In 2012, there were 394 deaths from asthma, down from a peak of 736 in 1989 (source 2).
  • In 2012–13, about one in six (18%) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people reported having asthma. Asthma also was more common among people living in socioeconomically disadvantaged localities compared with those in the least disadvantaged localities (source 3).


  • An estimated 530,000 Australians had COPD in 2011-12. (according to self-reporting AHS) (source 1).
  • In 2012, 5,923 people were recorded as having died from COPD (3,292 males and 2,631 females) making it the fifth leading cause of death (source 2). It should be noted, however, that the attribution of cause of death in the elderly is often difficult, particularly in relation to COPD and asthma.
  • In 2012-13, approximately 4% of Indigenous adults reported having COPD, which was 2.5 times the rate for non-Indigenous Australians (source 3). Similarly, Indigenous Australians were nearly 3 times more likely to die from COPD as non-Indigenous Australians during the period 2007-2011 (source 4).
  • COPD mortality rates are higher for people living in more remote areas and for people living in areas of lower socioeconomic status (source 5). Top of page

What are the risk factors for chronic respiratory conditions?

Risk factors for chronic respiratory conditions vary.


The underlying causes of asthma are still not well understood, although there is evidence that factors which increase the risk of developing asthma include environmental and lifestyle factors, as well as family history, gender and genetic factors such as an allergic tendency. Smoking and obesity are also linked to asthma development.


Advancing age is the major, non-modifiable risk factor which contributes to the development of COPD. COPD mainly affects middle aged and older people, while asthma affects people of all ages. Other factors affecting the development of COPD include smoking and long term exposure to lung irritants such as fumes, dust and smoke. Top of page

Treatment or management of chronic respiratory conditions


General practitioners play a central role in the management of asthma in the community. This includes assessment, diagnosis, prescription of regular medications, provision of written action plans, and regular review as well as managing acute exacerbations. The Asthma Cycle of Care is a programme through which doctors help patients with asthma manage their condition, and provides a framework for ongoing care and regular review.

The writing of an asthma action plan is a key part of the National Asthma Council Australia’s guidelines for the management of asthma. Asthma action plans are prepared for patients with asthma by a health care professional. Written asthma action plans can help people with asthma to manage their condition and reduce the severity of acute asthma episodes. According to self-reporting in the 2011-12 Australian Health Survey, an estimated 20% of people with asthma aged 15 and over have a written asthma action plan.

People with asthma require admission to hospital when flare-ups or ‘attacks’ are potentially life-threatening or when they cannot be managed at home or by a GP.

A wide range of information and resources relating to the treatment and management of asthma can be found at the Asthma Australia website and at the National Asthma Council Australia website. This includes resources for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and those of culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.


Management of COPD is mainly focused on slowing or preventing disease progression and maintaining function and quality of life for people with the disease.

General practitioners are often the first point of contact for people who develop COPD. Management of COPD is mainly focused on slowing or preventing disease progression and maintaining function and quality of life for people with the disease. Strategies employed include smoking cessation, treatment with medications, oxygen therapy and pulmonary rehabilitation. Patients who develop severe acute exacerbations of COPD may require admitted hospital care.

Information and resources relating to the treatment and management of COPD are available at the Lung Foundation Australia website. Top of page

Chronic respiratory condition programmes and initiatives

Chronic respiratory conditions are addressed at a national level through a range of programmes and initiatives that aim to support treatment and management of asthma, COPD and other chronic respiratory conditions. Significant funding is also provided to ensure that quality clinical research is conducted into chronic respiratory conditions, and to maintain national monitoring and surveillance measures.

Programmes that support management and treatment of chronic respiratory conditions include:
  • The Medicare Benefits Schedule, which provides subsidies for patient care and includes Medicare items for the planning and management of chronic and terminal conditions. Eligible patients can also be referred by a GP for up to five Medicare subsidised allied health services that are directly related to the treatment of their chronic condition, including chronic respiratory conditions.
  • The Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme continues to provide subsidies for medicines used in the treatment of chronic respiratory conditions.
  • Significant investments in arthritis research through the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) for research into chronic respiratory conditions. Improving the care of patients with multiple and complex chronic diseases, including asthma, has also been identified by the NHMRC as a major focus in its 2013-15 Strategic Plan.
Support and care for chronic respiratory conditions is also provided through large-scale programmes. Funding has been provided to organisations such as Asthma Australia, the National Asthma Council and the Lung Foundation. Programmes which provide training, support or incentives to GPs and primary healthcare services to improve management of asthma and COPD have also been funded.

Additionally, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare is funded to support national surveillance and monitoring of asthma and other chronic respiratory conditions. Top of page

Related links


1 Australian Bureau of Statistics 2012. Australian Health Survey: First Results, 2011-12. ABS cat. no. 4364.0.55.001. Canberra:ABS.
2 Australian Bureau of Statistics 2014. Causes of Death, Australia 2012. ABS cat. no. 3303.0. Canberra:ABS.
3 Australian Bureau of Statistics 2013. Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey: First Results, 2012-13. ABS cat. no. 4727.0.55.001. Canberra:AIHW.
4 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2014. Indigenous observatory. AIHW. Viewed 17 December 2014.
5 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2014. Mortality inequalities in Australia 2009-2011. AIHW. Viewed 17 December 2014.