Asthma and panic attacks may both cause similar symptoms, such as difficulty breathing and chest tightness. However, they both have different triggers, impacts, management, and treatment plans.
One of the main goals of living with asthma is managing your symptoms to avoid 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.
Asthma occurs due to 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 further, making breathing difficult. Wheezing may be audible. 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 worsen, you may need emergency medical attention.
Triggers that irritate your lungs often cause asthma attacks. These triggers 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 from viruses
- food allergies
A panic attack is a severe episode 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)
- dizziness or lightheadedness
- feeling like something is smothering you
- tingling hands and face
- 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.
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.
Here’s a breakdown of their general differences:
|Asthma attack||Panic attack|
|Breathing difficulties||Chest constriction reduces oxygen intake.||Shallow, rapid breathing increases oxygen flow.|
|Physical symptoms||Inflammation and constriction of the airways can cause wheezing and coughing.||Attacks do not constrict the airways but can cause rapid heart rate, dizziness, and muscle cramps.|
|Psychological impact||Can cause immediate stress and anxiety over new attacks.||Attacks can cause sudden, intense fear. Panic disorder can also cause anxiety and stress between attacks.|
• extreme temperatures
• chronic disorders
• medication side effects
• external stressors
• life changes
People with asthma and panic disorder may experience more severe symptoms from attacks.
The better you manage both asthma and anxiety, the less likely you are to experience an asthma or panic attack.
Managing your asthma can make a difference in airway function. Plus, experiencing fewer symptoms can make you feel less stressed about your condition overall.
Establishing and following an asthma action plan can lower anxiety and help you feel more in control of your condition. This includes:
- making sure your medications are readily available at all times
- knowing how to manage acute attacks
- knowing when to contact emergency services during an attack
Talk with 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, making falling asleep difficult
- you have difficulty exercising without wheezing
- you’re relying on your rescue inhaler several times per week
People can often treat an asthma attack with a quick-relief medication, such as a 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 necessary if you experience shortness of breath.
Learning to manage and reduce stress can also lower the risk of asthma attacks.
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 is common. However, stress can also trigger your asthma, so it’s important to manage it as best as possible.
Some steps you can take to reduce everyday stress include:
- incorporating relaxation techniques, such as meditation and deep breathing exercises, into your day to day
- getting regular physical exercise
- reducing 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 and panic attacks share similarities, they have very different symptoms overall. It’s possible to experience anxiety and asthma simultaneously, 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.