One of the main goals when you live with asthma is to manage your symptoms to avoid having an asthma attack. Environmental triggers such as pollen and pet dander can bring on asthma complications. Another common trigger for asthma symptoms is severe stress.

Stress itself is a normal part of life. But when left unmanaged, stress can lead to anxiety. It’s also possible to have both stress and an anxiety disorder. Severe anxiety can even lead to a panic attack.

Sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish between an asthma attack and a panic attack because they have similar symptoms. But these are two different conditions that require separate considerations for management and treatment.

The better you’re able to manage both asthma and anxiety, the less likely you are to experience an asthma or panic attack.

Asthma is caused by underlying inflammation and constriction of your airways or bronchial tubes. Both inflammation and constriction can make it hard to breathe. This causes symptoms like wheezing, chest tightness, and coughing.

When you have an asthma attack, your bronchial tubes constrict even further, making it difficult to breathe. Wheezing may be audible, and you may have tightness or a rattling sensation in your chest. Depending on the severity of your asthma attack, your symptoms could last from several minutes to hours, or even days.

Quick-relief medications (bronchodilators) can reduce your symptoms and stop the attack. But if your symptoms continue to get worse, you may need to seek emergency medical attention.

An asthma attack is brought on by triggers that irritate your lungs. These can include:

  • allergens, such as pollen, animal dander, and dust mites
  • chemicals, including perfume, smoke, and cleaning products
  • exercise, especially if it’s more strenuous than what you’re used to
  • extreme heat or cold
  • stress and anxiety
  • upper respiratory tract infections
  • food allergies

A panic attack is a severe bout of anxiety that comes on suddenly.

When you’re having a panic attack, you may experience shortness of breath and chest tightness. This can feel similar to an asthma attack.

But unlike coughing and wheezing associated with asthma, panic attacks can also cause:

  • hyperventilation (taking short, rapid breaths)
  • feeling like you’re being smothered
  • dizziness or lightheadedness
  • faintness
  • tingling hands and face
  • nausea
  • sweating or chills
  • increased heart rate
  • feelings of detachment from yourself and your surroundings
  • feeling like you’re losing control
  • fears of dying

A panic attack can peak after 10 minutes, and then often begins to subside. While a panic attack can occur in the middle of a state of severe anxiety, these symptoms can also occur unexpectedly when you feel calm.

Both asthma and panic attacks can cause breathing difficulties and a tight feeling in your chest.

One key difference is that the constriction in your airways during an asthma attack can decrease oxygen intake, while hyperventilation in a panic attack can increase oxygen flow.

Panic attacks also pose a wide range of symptoms beyond breathing difficulties. Wheezing and coughing are also symptoms usually only associated with asthma attacks.

Psychologically, both asthma and anxiety can create stress. It can feel like a never-ending cycle if you live with both of these conditions. But recognizing the difference between asthma and anxiety can help you and your doctor create a more effective treatment plan.

For example, some medications used to treat asthma, such as bronchodilators, have the side effect of making anxiety worse.

Managing your asthma can make a difference in airway function. Plus, experiencing fewer symptoms can make you feel less stressed about your condition overall.

You should see your doctor about making changes to your current asthma treatment plan if:

  • You’re wheezing more throughout the day and night.
  • Your symptoms wake you up in your sleep.
  • You experience frequent coughing and chest tightness that make it difficult to fall asleep.
  • You have difficulty exercising without wheezing.
  • You’re relying on your rescue inhaler more than a few times per week.

An asthma attack is typically treated with a quick-relief medication, such as your rescue inhaler. If you continue to have asthma attacks, you may need a corticosteroid inhaler or leukotriene modifier to decrease airway inflammation.

Emergency medical care may be required if you continue to experience shortness of breath.

Anxiety that builds up can lead to panic attacks. If you experience frequent anxiety, consider seeking help from a mental health professional. They can help you work through your anxiety and reduce the likelihood of external stressors triggering a panic attack.

Even if you don’t have an anxiety disorder, stress itself is a fact of life. However, stress can also trigger your asthma, so it’s important to manage it as best as you can.

Some steps you can take to reduce everyday stress include:

  • relaxation techniques, such as meditation and deep breathing exercises
  • regular physical exercise
  • reduced intake of alcohol and caffeine
  • getting enough sleep
  • making time for socializing and doing activities you enjoy outside of work and other obligations

While asthma attacks and panic attacks share some similarities, they have very different symptoms overall. It’s possible to experience anxiety and asthma at the same time, which can make it difficult to distinguish between the two.

If you’re consistently experiencing asthma or panic attacks, it may be because you’re not getting proper treatment for one. Tracking your symptoms can help your doctor get you on the right treatment.