Asthma symptoms appear when your airways are inflamed and constricted.
Symptoms can vary greatly. They can be barely noticeable or severe and life-threatening. Many people with asthma don’t even know they have it.
Symptoms vary depending on the individual and their age. One attack can also be different than another attack in the same person. You can go a long time without symptoms and have only periodic asthma attacks. Or you can have asthma symptoms on a daily basis, only at night, or only after exercise.
If you’re experiencing what you think might be asthma symptoms, see your doctor for asthma screening and tests.
A persistent cough is a common asthma symptom. The cough may be dry or wet (containing mucus), and it 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 is a whistling sound that usually occurs when you exhale. It results from air being forced through narrow, constricted air passages. Wheezing is a recognizable asthma symptom, but wheezing alone doesn’t mean you have asthma. It’s also a symptom of other health problems, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and pneumonia.
You might find it difficult to breathe as your airways become inflamed and constricted. Mucus can fill these narrowed passages, worsening the airway constriction. Difficulty breathing can lead to feelings of anxiety, which can then make breathing even more difficult.
As the muscles surrounding your airways constrict, your chest may tighten. This can feel like someone is tightening a rope around your upper torso. Chest tightness can make it difficult to breathe and lead to feelings of anxiety.
Some asthma symptoms are less common. They can be triggered by the common asthma symptoms previously mentioned, or they can exist independently of those symptoms.
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, fatigue sets in. If your asthma symptoms worsen at night (nocturnal asthma) and you have trouble sleeping, you’ll likely feel fatigued during the day
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 is a natural physiological response that involves the lungs expanding to full capacity. Sighing is essentially a deep breath and a long exhale. Because asthma can constrict air flow into your body, you might sigh to get excessive air into or out of your body.
Anxiety can trigger an asthma attack. It can also be a symptom of an asthma attack. As your airways start to narrow, your chest tightens and breathing becomes difficult. These symptoms can generate anxiety. The unpredictability of an asthma attack can also create anxiety. Being in a stressful situation can trigger asthma symptoms in some people.
Exercise can have various effects on your asthma.
If you exercise outdoors, many environmental factors can constrict your airways. Also, if you enjoy endurance sports such as swimming, you face more risks of exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB).
Fortunately, exercise can also lessen your asthma symptoms by improving the health of your heart and decreasing the severity of your airway constriction.
Infants are especially susceptible to asthma symptoms because of their smaller airways. Children under the age of five commonly experience respiratory infections, which can cause them to get asthma symptoms more quickly than in adults. Symptoms unique to infants include difficulty sucking or eating, a change in their crying sounds, and cyanosis, which is characterized by a pale blue coloring in the face, lips, or fingernails. In serious cases, infants may stop responding to or even recognizing their parents.
Young children show many of the same asthma symptoms as infants. Children may also frequently cough, wheeze, and experience chest colds. However, these symptoms may not always indicate asthma. If symptoms persist or are worsened by smoke or allergens like pet dander, a child probably has asthma.
According to a 2014 study, children don’t always report their symptoms when they feel chest tightness, but parents react when they hear their child wheezing. Children should keep an asthma symptoms journal to improve communication between parents and children with asthma. Writing down details of their symptoms can help children recognize their asthma and quickly report symptoms to their parents.
Asthma symptoms can disrupt your daily life and keep you from enjoying an active lifestyle. Luckily, most symptoms are more of an annoyance than a threat to your life.
However, 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, which is a sign of cyanosis
- extreme difficulty breathing, in which the neck and chest may be “sucked in” with each breath
- difficulty talking or walking
- mental confusion
- extreme anxiety caused by breathing difficulty
- fever of 100°F or higher
- chest pain
- rapid pulse
Asthma symptoms can be frightening, but proper treatment and lifestyle choices can help you control your asthma. Being aware of your symptoms and their patterns allows you to plan your response to each symptom and attack. This knowledge can make you confident in the face of your symptoms.