Symptoms of Asthma

Asthma affects everyone differently and the range and severity of symptoms varies from person to person. Find out more about the common and uncommon symptoms of asthma.

What are the common symptoms of asthma?

The most common symptoms of asthma are:

Not all asthma suffers will suffer all of the above symptoms. It is important to be aware that people who develop the above symptoms donít necessarily have asthma. There are a number of other conditions such as reflux disease, chronic sinusitis and vocal cord dysfunction that can mimic the symptoms of asthma.

What are the less common symptoms of asthma?

Other symptoms that may be reported by asthma sufferers include:

Asthma Attacks

Those who have asthma may experience asthma attacks, with the symptoms developing at a varying rate. Some asthma attacks develop quickly within minutes, while others develop at a slower rate over a time frame of hours or even days.

What happens during an asthma attack?

The airways of people who have asthma are always inflamed and sensitive. An asthma attack results in narrowing of the airways that reduces the flow of air into and out of the lungs.

Symptoms of an asthma attack

During an attack, a number of changes occur within the airways.

  • Increased Mucus: The cells lining the airways produce more mucus when inflammation or irritation increases. The thick mucus can hinder the flow of air to and from the lungs.
  • Inflammation and Swelling: Irritation of the airways causes them to swell which also restricts airflow.
  • Muscle Tightening: Muscles in the airways tighten in response to the irritation, which makes the airways smaller and less air is able to flow to and from the lungs.

These symptoms that narrow the airways can develop in a matter of minutes or may take hours or days. The symptoms themselves can range from mild to severe.

What are the types of asthma attack?

An asthma attack is commonly categorized into one of three categories:

  1. Mild asthma attack
  2. Moderate asthma attack
  3. Severe asthma attack

Mild asthma attack

Some asthma attacks may have only mild symptoms.

Symptoms of a mild asthma attack:

The symptoms of a mild asthma attack may include one or more of the following:

Moderate asthma attack

Some asthma attacks include more moderate symptoms.

Symptoms of a moderate asthma attack:

  • Persistent, continual coughing
  • Increased wheezing
  • Noticeable breathing difficulty
  • Can only manage to speak a few words between breaths

Severe asthma attack

Some asthma attacks include more severe symptoms.

Symptoms of a severe asthma attack:

Asthma attack triggers

An asthma trigger is something that results in the development of asthma symptoms by causing the airways to narrow. Asthma triggers vary from person to person.

Most patients with well-controlled asthma do not develop symptoms even when exposed to known triggers. Research shows that the best way to improve asthma and reduce the risk of an attack is to treat the underlying airway inflammation by using medication. Treatment reduces the chance that exposure to triggers will produce symptoms.

Avoiding asthma triggers is not essential but may be useful for people who have to take high doses of medication to keep their symptoms under control or who suffer problematic asthma symptoms despite treatment. As a general rule, all asthma sufferers should avoid exposure to general airway irritants such as cigarette smoke and heavy air pollution.

Potential asthma triggers include:

Many asthma sufferers also have allergies that can trigger asthma symptoms. Consultation with an allergist can uncover if any allergies may be triggering your asthma.

  • Bushfires

People with asthma can be more sensitive to the effects of breathing in smoke from bushfires. Smoke from bushfires contains tiny particles that can enter the lungs and irritate the airways, leading to asthma symptoms.

Viruses that cause colds and flu act by infecting the respiratory tract and causing inflammation. Cold and flu viruses can be more serious for people with asthma as their airways are swollen and sensitive and the virus can cause further inflammation. If you do develop a cold or flu it is important to be diligent in following your asthma management plan and if symptoms get worse, go see your doctor, as a short course of oral corticosteroids may be required to manage worsening asthma symptoms.

Dust mites are small invisible insects found in many areas of a home. They thrive in damp, humid conditions, making bedding an ideal environment for them. Dust mite allergy is often associated with asthma though it is the dust mite droppings rather than the dust mites themselves that cause the allergy. It is impossible to totally eradicate dust mites from a home though measures such as regular vacuuming, frequent washing of bedding and soft furnishings and the use of dust mite covers on bedding may help reduce the quantity of this allergen. As it is virtually impossible to avoid dust mites, it is important to ensure you have good control of your asthma symptoms.

  • Hormones

Studies show that hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy, menstruation and menopause may exacerbate asthma symptoms. Furthermore, medications (Nurofen and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatories) used to control menstrual pain can also exacerbate asthma symptoms, so it may be advisable to use paracetamol. Keeping a diary can help you determine whether your monthly hormonal changes are flaring up your asthma symptoms. If so, talk to your doctor about adjusting your medication during these times. Pregnancy can cause asthma symptoms to worsen in some women or improve in others.

  • Mould

Mould tends to grow in damp places and produces millions of spores that are dispersed into the air and can easily be inhaled. These spores can trigger an asthma attack in some people. If your asthma is exacerbated by mould, it may be a good idea to take some measures to limit your exposure. For example, keep your living areas well ventilated and regularly clean your bathroom.

Pollen tends to be present in the air in greater numbers during particular times of the year. It is important to ensure you have your asthma well controlled during these times of the year. It may be necessary for some people to take additional measures to minimise exposure when pollen levels are particularly high. These measures include:

  • staying indoors, on windy days or during thunderstorms
  • avoiding activities such as mowing the lawn
  • showering after outdoor activities
  • using recirculated air in the car
  • removing any plants in your garden which are producing significant amounts of pollen which trigger your symptoms.
  • Air pollution

Air pollution refers to excessive fumes, odour, dust or gas in the air that can irritate the airways and make your asthma symptoms worse. If you have your asthma well under control, you may not react to increased levels of air pollution. If you do find your symptoms difficult to control when air pollution is high, you may need to talk to your doctor to adjust your medication or you may take simple measures to minimise your exposure to the pollution. These measures include:

  • stay indoors on particularly smoggy, smoky or dusty days
  • avoid outdoor physical activities when air pollution levels are high
  • use your air condition to filter the air that enters into your house
  • avoid indoor air pollution such as caused by tobacco smoke.
  • Aerosol sprays

Aerosol sprays (deodorants, body sprays, cleaning sprays) produce a fine mist that contains chemicals and strong smells. The inhalation of these mists can trigger asthma symptoms. As spray mists can travel quite a distance if there is a breeze, or linger in the air in a confined space an asthma attack can be triggered even if the spray is used quite some distance away. It is a good idea to avoid using sprays in a poorly ventilated space and to avoid using them near other people who may themselves have asthma.

  • Chemicals

The sensitive airways of asthmatics may readily react to exposure to chemicals so it is important to keep your asthma well under control. Exposure to chemicals can come from many sources such as power stations, smelters, cleaning agents, paints, glues, sealants and motor vehicle exhaust.

Asthma sufferers should be diligent in avoiding exposure to tobacco smoke. Tobacco smoke damages and irritates the lungs and makes asthma symptoms more difficult to manage.

Pets such as cats and dogs are a relatively common trigger of asthma but other animals such as horses, mice and birds may also be problematic. It is a good idea to talk to your doctor about allergy tests if you feel you may have an allergy to a pet. An asthmatic reaction to an animal may occur within minutes or even many hours after the exposure.

In some people, physical exercise can trigger an asthma attack - this is referred to as exercise-induced asthma. This does not mean that you canít exercise, it just means that you need to have your asthma under control and a management plan in cause your symptoms become worse. Many athletes are able to exercise at an elite level as long as they have their asthma under control.

  • Medications

Medications are capable of triggering an asthma attack as well as making your asthma difficult to control. Certain medications are more likely to affect your asthma:

  • Beta-blocker medications
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDís)
  • Cholinergic drugs
  • Cholinesterase inhibitors.

Always check with your doctor before starting or stopping a medication.

  • Food and food preservatives

Foods and preservatives found in them can readily trigger asthma. Food allergies are quite common and the reaction to the food can involve asthmatic symptoms. Foods commonly associated with allergic reactions are:

  • Wheat
  • Cowís milk
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Peanuts
  • Soy
  • Shrimp and shellfish.

Food preservatives, particularly sulphites are frequently used in the preparation or processing of food and sensitive individuals may readily react to these.

A stressful event such as a fight, excitement, fear or stress can trigger the onset of asthma symptoms. Children in particular are susceptible to this. By being aware of how your emotions affect your asthma, you can take measures to minimise their effect.

  • Exposure to cold dry air or weather changes

Inhaling cold, dry air causes the airways to constrict that can trigger asthma symptoms. As a result, if you are aware that you will be in a cold environment, it is a good idea to speak to your doctor and adjust your medication plan.

Who gets asthma?

Asthma can occur in any age group but is particularly prominent in children with asthma being the most common chronic disease among children. It is estimated by WHO that 300 million people suffer from asthma around the world.

Asthma can occur at any age but often tends to develop during childhood.

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Back to: « Asthma

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Asthma causes recurring periods of wheezing (a whistling sound when you breathe), chest tightness, shortness of breath, and coughing. The coughing often occurs at night or early in the morning.

Sometimes asthma symptoms are mild and go away on their own or after minimal treatment with asthma medicine. Other times, symptoms continue to get worse.

When symptoms get more intense and/or more symptoms occur, you're having an asthma attack. Asthma attacks also are called flareups or exacerbations (eg-zas-er-BA-shuns).

Treating symptoms when you first notice them is important. This will help prevent the symptoms from worsening and causing a severe asthma attack. Severe asthma attacks may require emergency care, and they can be fatal.

Source: NHLBI (NIH)1

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What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Asthma?

Common signs and symptoms of asthma include:

  • Coughing. Coughing from asthma often is worse at night or early in the morning, making it hard to sleep.
  • Wheezing. Wheezing is a whistling or squeaky sound that occurs when you breathe.
  • Chest tightness. This may feel like something is squeezing or sitting on your chest.
  • Shortness of breath. Some people who have asthma say they can't catch their breath or they feel out of breath. You may feel like you can't get air out of your lungs.

Not all people who have asthma have these symptoms. Likewise, having these symptoms doesn't always mean that you have asthma. The best way to diagnose asthma for certain is to use a lung function test, a medical history (including type and frequency of symptoms), and a physical exam.

The types of asthma symptoms you have, how often they occur, and how severe they are may vary over time. Sometimes your symptoms may just annoy you. Other times, they may be troublesome enough to limit your daily routine.

Severe symptoms can be fatal. It's important to treat symptoms when you first notice them so they don't become severe.

With proper treatment, most people who have asthma can expect to have few, if any, symptoms either during the day or at night.

Source: NHLBI (NIH)2

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Major symptoms of asthma include wheezing (a whistling sound when breathing), shortness of breath, coughing thatís worse at night and early morning, and chest tightness. These symptoms arise from reactions that narrow the airways, the tubes that carry air into and out of your lungs. When symptoms flare up, itís called an asthma attack.

Source: NIH News in Health (NIH)3

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Asthma is a complex disease that narrows the airways in the lungs. It leads to wheezing, coughing, chest tightness and trouble breathing.

Source: NIH News in Health (NIH)4

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Thatís what causes the wheezing (a whistling sound when you breathe), coughing, chest tightness and trouble breathing that we know as the symptoms of asthma.

Source: NIH News in Health (NIH)5

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Know the Signs and Symptoms of Asthma

Not all people have these asthma symptoms, and symptoms may vary from one asthma attack to another. Common symptoms include:

  • Coughing. Coughing from asthma is often worse at night or early in the morning, making it hard to sleep.
  • Wheezing, a whistling or squeaky sound when you breathe.
  • Chest tightness. This can feel like something is squeezing or sitting on your chest.
  • Shortness of breath. Some people say they canít catch their breath, or they feel breathless or out of breath. You may feel like you canít get enough air in or out of your lungs.
  • Fast or noisy breathing.

With proper treatment most people with asthma can expect to have few or no symptoms. See your doctor if you suspect you might have asthma.

Source: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, NIH

Source: NIH News in Health (NIH)6

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Asthma can cause chronic coughing, chest tightness, wheezing and trouble breathing.

Source: NIH News in Health (NIH)7

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Mild persistent asthma brings symptoms like wheezing, coughing, or chest tightness more than twice a week but not daily, or wakes you up more than two nights a month.

Source: NIH News in Health (NIH)8

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Asthma is a chronic lung disease that intermittently inflames and narrows the airways. People with asthma may experience wheezing, breathlessness, chest tightness, and coughing when the airways narrow.

Source: NIAID (NIH)9

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Asthma is a form of lung disease in which the airways develop inflammation and bronchospasm (reversible narrowing) in response to sensitizing or irritating exposure. Affected individuals can experience episodes of shortness of breath, cough, chest tightness, and wheezing. These symptoms occur after exposure to nonspecific irritating substances in the air or after exposure to substances to which an individual is allergic.

Source: CDC NIOSH10

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It is a chronic inflammatory disorder of the airways characterized by coughing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness.

The physiological symptoms of asthma are a narrowing of the airways caused by edema (fluid in the intracellular tissue space) and the influx of inflammatory cells into the walls of the airways.

Source: NCBI, Genes and Disease (NCBI/NIH)11

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It causes repeated episodes of wheezing, breathlessness, chest tightness, and nighttime or early morning coughing.

Source: CDC12

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Symptoms

The Human Phenotype Ontology (HPO) provides the following list of features that have been reported in people with this condition. Much of the information in the HPO comes from Orphanet, a European rare disease database.

Signs and Symptoms

  • Asthma

Last updated: 1/1/2017

Source: GARD (NIH)13

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Symptoms of asthma include

Not all people who have asthma have these symptoms.

Source: MedLinePlus (NIH)14

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People with asthma experience episodes of wheezing, breathlessness and chest tightness due to widespread narrowing of the airways.

Source: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare15

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What are the symptoms of asthma?

Wheezing, coughing, chest tightness, and trouble breathing. During an asthma attack, the muscles around the airways tighten up, more mucus is produced, and asthma symptoms become worse.

Source: MedLinePlus Magazine (NIH)16

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Common signs and symptoms of asthma include:

Not everyone with asthma has these symptoms. Nor does having them always mean asthma. To diagnose asthma for certain requires a lung function test, a medical history (including type and frequency of symptoms), and a physical exam.

Asthma symptoms vary in frequency and severity. Sometimes they may just annoy you. Other times they might limit your daily routine.

Severe symptoms can be fatal, so it's important to treat symptoms when you first notice them, so they don't become severe.

Source: MedLinePlus Magazine (NIH)17

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A personís asthma triggers cause their airways to tighten, partially close up, swell inside and make more mucus.

This makes it hard for the person to breathe in - and even harder to breathe out.

Source: New Zealand Health18

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Symptoms

The main symptoms of asthma are:

The symptoms can sometimes get temporarily worse. This is known as an asthma attack.

Read more about the symptoms of asthma.

Source: NHS Choices UK19

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Symptoms

Most children and adults with asthma have times when their breathing becomes more difficult.

Some people with severe asthma may have breathing problems most of the time.

The most common symptoms of asthma are:

Many things can cause these symptoms, but they're more likely to be asthma if they:

  • happen often and keep coming back
  • are worse at night and early in the morning
  • seem to happen in response to an asthma trigger like exercise or an allergy (such as to pollen or animal fur)

See a GP if you think you or your child may have asthma, or you have asthma and are finding it hard to control.

Source: NHS Choices UK20

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Asthma attacks

Asthma can sometimes get worse for a short time - this is known as an asthma attack. It can happen suddenly, or gradually over a few days.

Signs of a severe asthma attack include:

Read about what to do during an asthma attack.

Source: NHS Choices UK21

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References

  1. Source: NHLBI (NIH): nhlbi.nih.gov/ health/ health-topics/ topics/ asthma
  2. Source: NHLBI (NIH): nhlbi.nih.gov/ health/ health-topics/ topics/ asthma/ signs
  3. Source: NIH News in Health (NIH): newsinhealth.nih.gov/ issue/ jun2014/ feature1
  4. Source: NIH News in Health (NIH): newsinhealth.nih.gov/ issue/ nov2011/ capsule1
  5. Source: NIH News in Health (NIH): newsinhealth.nih.gov/ 2006/ July/ docs/ 01features_01.htm
  6. ibid.
  7. Source: NIH News in Health (NIH): newsinhealth.nih.gov/ 2005/ October2005/ docs/ 02capsules.htm
  8. Source: NIH News in Health (NIH): newsinhealth.nih.gov/ 2005/ June2005/ docs/ 02capsules.htm
  9. Source: NIAID (NIH): niaid.nih.gov/ diseases-conditions/ asthma
  10. Source: CDC NIOSH: cdc.gov/ niosh/ topics/ indoorenv/ moldsymptoms.html
  11. Source: NCBI, Genes and Disease (NCBI/NIH): ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/ books/ NBK22181/ 
  12. Source: CDC: cdc.gov/ asthma/ 
  13. Source: GARD (NIH): rarediseases.info.nih.gov/ diseases/ 10246/ asthma
  14. Source: MedLinePlus (NIH): medlineplus.gov/ asthma.html
  15. Source: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare: aihw.gov.au/ reports-statistics/ health-conditions-disability-deaths/ asthma-other-chronic-respiratory-conditions/ about
  16. Source: MedLinePlus Magazine (NIH): medlineplus.gov/ magazine/ issues/ fall17/ articles/ fall17pg26.html
  17. Source: MedLinePlus Magazine (NIH): medlineplus.gov/ magazine/ issues/ fall13/ articles/ fall13pg12-13.html
  18. Source: New Zealand Health: health.govt.nz/ your-health/ conditions-and-treatments/ diseases-and-illnesses/ asthma
  19. Source: NHS Choices UK: nhs.uk/ conditions/ Asthma/ 
  20. Source: NHS Choices UK: nhs.uk/ conditions/ asthma/ symptoms/ 
  21. ibid.

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Note: This site is for informational purposes only and is not medical advice. See your doctor or other qualified medical professional for all your medical needs.