Asthma Symptoms

Written by the Healthline Editorial Team | Published on September 11, 2014
Medically Reviewed by Brenda B. Spriggs, MD, MPH, MBA on September 11, 2014

Asthma Symptoms

Asthma symptoms appear when the airways are inflamed and constricted.

Symptoms can vary greatly. They could be barely noticeable or they can be severe and life threatening. Many people with asthma don’t even know they have it.

Symptoms can not only present differently person to person, but they can also vary from one attack to another in the same person. You could go long periods of time without any symptoms, and have periodic asthma attacks. Or you might have asthma symptoms every day, only at night, or only after exercise.

Watch a doctor explain what asthma is and how to treat it »

If you are experiencing what you think might be asthma symptoms, see your doctor for asthma screening and tests

Common Asthma Symptoms

Coughing

A persistent cough is one of the most common asthma symptoms. The cough may be dry or wet (containing mucus) and might worsen at night or after exercise. A chronic dry cough with no other asthma symptoms may be a sign that you have cough-variant asthma.

Wheezing

Wheezing is a whistling sound that usually occurs when you exhale. It’s the result of air being forced through narrow, constricted air passages. Wheezing is one of the most recognizable asthma symptoms, but just because you wheeze doesn’t mean you have asthma. It’s also a symptom of other health problems, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and pneumonia.

Difficulty Breathing

You might find it difficult to breathe or catch your breath as the airways become inflamed and constricted. To make matters worse, mucus can fill the narrowed passages. This asthma symptom could lead to feelings of anxiety, which can make breathing even more difficult.

Chest Tightness

As the muscles surrounding your airways constrict, you may experience a feeling of tightness in the chest. It could feel as if someone were tightening a rope around your upper torso. This asthma symptom could make it difficult to breathe or catch your breath and lead to feelings of anxiety.

Learn How This Trial Can Help You Manage Your Severe Asthma Symptoms »

Less Common Asthma Symptoms

Some asthma symptoms are less common. They can be triggered by the common asthma symptoms listed above or can exist independently of those symptoms.

Fatigue

During an asthma attack, you aren’t getting enough oxygen into your lungs. This means less oxygen is getting into your blood and to your muscles. Without oxygen, your body slows down and fatigue sets in. If your asthma symptoms worsen at night (nocturnal asthma) and you have trouble sleeping, you will likely feel fatigued during the day.

Nasal Flaring

Nasal flaring is the enlargement of the nostrils during breathing. It’s often a sign of breathing difficulty. This asthma symptom is most common in younger children and infants.

Sighing

Sighing is a natural physiological response that involves the lungs expanding to full capacity. Essentially sighing is a deep breath and a long exhale.

Anxiety

Anxiety can be both a symptom of and a trigger for an asthma attack. As your airways start to narrow, your chest tightens, and breathing becomes difficult, which can understandably generate anxiety. And the unpredictability of an asthma attack can also be a source of anxiety. On the other hand, being in a stressful situation can trigger asthma symptoms in some people. 

Emergency Symptoms of Asthma

Asthma symptoms can disrupt your daily life and keep you from enjoying an active lifestyle. Luckily, most of the time symptoms are more of an annoyance than a threat to your life.

Remember though that if an asthma attack is severe, it can be a life-threatening emergency. An adult or child with an asthma attack should go to the emergency room if quick-relief medication fails to work after 10 to 15 minutes or if any of the following symptoms appear:

  • discolored (blue or gray) lips, face, or nails
  • extreme difficulty breathing; neck and chest are “sucked in” with each breath
  • difficulty talking or walking
  • mental confusion
  • extreme anxiety caused by breathing difficulty
  • fever of 100 degrees or higher
  • chest pain
  • rapid pulse
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