Author(s): Lenna Liu, MD

Date Last Reviewed: February 1, 1995

Photo by United Nations Photo (cc license)

Disease Recognition

Asthma is a well recognized disease in Somalia, both in urban and rural environments. One person said asthma is very common there because Somalia is a hot, dry, dusty country and dust causes asthma. Asthma is called /nef/ or /az’ ma/. /Nef/ means asthma. Asthma was distinguished from colds, tuberculosis, and pneumonia.

Symptom Recognition

A term exists for wheeze. It is called /hu’ urrto/ (with a rolled r). This was a term that all people interviewed also recognized. Symptoms recognized with asthma included /hu’urto/, difficulty breathing in and out, and difficulty sleeping. One mother recognized her child’s nighttime cough, as well as wheezing with exercise, crying hard, or emotional upset.

Disease Causation

People did not know what caused their asthma. Some mentioned that other family members had asthma too, alluding to inheritance as a possibility. One person did not get asthma prior to coming to the US. She thought the new weather caused her asthma. Asthma is not thought to be curable.

Symptom Exacerbation/Relief

Carpeting, bedrooms, dust, cigarette smoke, animals, and crying (in a child) were all reported to worsen asthma. One family with asthma avoids smoke. Although one person in the family smokes, he smokes outside. In addition, they avoid smoke from incense (although burning incense is a common custom in Somali culture). Pets or animals are not kept in the house according to Somali culture.


At home Somali people treat symptoms with honey and butter mixture. In the United States, one Somali woman uses only honey because she cannot find butter from a cow. She gives her child one spoonful of honey every night before bed as well as massaging her child’s chest and keeping her warm.

Traditional healers often use a sesame oil with water mixture. It works by causing one to vomit, expel mucus, and then improve. They also use an egg, butter, and milk mixture to treat asthma.

Western medication is also available. Somalia was a colony governed by Italy until 1960. Even after gaining their independence, however, Italy still helped with medical and schooling issues. Consequently, they have received western medicine from Italy, as well as Germany and England. One woman had received IV aminophylline and hydrocortisone when she was pregnant and had asthma. She had also received IM epinephrine and steroids for acute episodes.