Asthma overview

Asthma is a chronic inflammatory condition that affects your ability to breathe. Asthma is often triggered by a mix of environmental and hereditary factors.

Symptoms of asthma arise when the airways to your lungs begin to swell and constrict. Symptoms vary and can be barely noticeable, severe, or even life-threatening.

Asthma can affect people of all ages, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. But it’s most likely to develop during childhood.

It is important to note that asthma symptoms can range from nonexistent to severe in the same person. You can go a long time without symptoms and then have periodic asthma attacks. Or you can have asthma symptoms on a daily basis, only at night, or only after exercise.

According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, asthma affects 26 million people in the United States. Many people go undiagnosed because of mild symptoms. If you think you’re experiencing asthma symptoms, schedule an appointment with your doctor for asthma screening and tests.

Learn more: Is it asthma or bronchitis? »

Whether you’re experiencing your first onset of asthma, or you’ve been asthmatic for many years, you may experience the following symptoms:


A persistent cough is a common asthma symptom. The cough may be dry or wet (containing mucus). It might worsen at night or after exercise.

A chronic dry cough with no other asthma symptoms may be a symptom of 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 can also be a symptom of other health problems, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), congestive heart failure (CHF), and pneumonia.

Read more: Asthma vs. COPD: How to tell the difference »

Difficulty breathing

It may be difficult to breathe as your airways become inflamed and constricted. Mucus can fill these narrowed passages and worsen airway constriction. Difficulty breathing can lead to feelings of anxiety, which can make breathing even more difficult.

Chest tightness

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.


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

Nasal flaring is the enlargement and stretching 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 a deep breath and a long exhale. Because asthma can constrict air flow into your body, you might sigh to get excess 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.

Early warning signs of an asthma attack

Not everyone who has asthma experiences asthma attacks, but there are early symptoms of an asthma attack. These include:

  • severe coughing
  • wheezing
  • shortness of breath
  • chest tightness
  • fatigue
  • itchiness
  • nervousness
  • irritability

Severe symptoms

If an asthma attack is severe, it can be a life-threatening emergency. An adult or child having 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 symptom 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 (37.7°C) or higher
  • chest pain
  • rapid pulse

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 when you experience symptoms.

Asthma Risk Factors »

Exercise can have various effects on your asthma.

If you exercise outdoors, many environmental factors can constrict your airways. If you have asthma you also are at risk for exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB).

Exercise can lessen your asthma symptoms by improving the health of your heart and lungs. It also decreases the severity of airway constriction. The American College of Sports Medicine and the American Thoracic Society recommend low to moderate intensity aerobic activity for people with asthma. This includes activities such as walking, running, hiking, biking, and using an elliptical machine. Activities that increase your heart rate for over 20-30 minutes, five days a week, are ideal.

Infants are especially susceptible to asthma symptoms because they have smaller airways. Children under the age of 5 often experience respiratory infections, which can cause them to have asthma symptoms more frequently than in adults. The most common symptom in infants is wheezing with respiratory infections.

Other symptoms unique to infants also include:

  • difficulty sucking or eating
  • a change in their crying sounds
  • cyanosis, which is characterized by a pale blue coloring in the face, lips, or fingernails
  • decreased interaction with parents

Any of these symptoms are considered medical emergencies and prompt treatment is necessary.

Young children show many of the same asthma symptoms as infants. Children may also frequently cough, wheeze, and experience chest colds. But these symptoms may not always indicate asthma. If symptoms persist or become worse due to smoke or allergens like pet dander, a child could have asthma.

According to a 2014 study of children with asthma, children were more likely to notice feelings of chest tightness. Parents were more likely to notice wheezing. It’s important that children over 8 years of age keep an asthma symptoms journal. Keeping a journal will improve communication between parents and children with asthma. Writing down details of their symptoms can help children recognize their asthma and report symptoms more quickly to their parents.

If you or a family member is experiencing a first onset of symptoms of asthma, see your doctor. They may then refer you to a specialist. You should also see your doctor when you are experiencing less serious symptoms, and the tools you have to improve the asthma are not working.

When you seek medical attention for asthma your doctor can classify the severity of your asthma and select the best treatment. Because the degree of your asthma may change over time, it’s important to see a doctor regularly to adjust your treatment accordingly.

If you think you or a family member is experiencing an asthma attack, call 911 or local emergency services, or go to your nearest emergency room.


What are some tips to best reduce the triggers of my asthma? What can I do in my daily life?

Anonymous patient


The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute states that allergies and viral infections are the most common triggers of asthma attacks. Below are some tips for getting better control of your asthma.

  • Know what makes you wheeze. Knowing and avoiding what you are allergic to is a great way to control asthma flares.
  • Treat your allergies. Be consistent with your allergy treatment, especially during allergy season.
  • Get vaccinated. Respiratory illness like influenza, pneumonia, and whooping cough can be prevented through vaccination.
  • Get exercise. Make a goal of 30 minutes of exercise five days a week to improve your asthma control.
Judith Marcin, MDAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.
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