Wheezing is a hallmark symptom of asthma, but not everyone experiences it. You may have a cough or more silent symptoms of asthma. In rare cases, the absence of wheezing could suggest severe asthma.

Asthma is a lung condition that can make it hard to breathe. The passages that carry air into your lungs can become narrow and inflamed.

People with asthma can have attacks where they experience shortness of breath and coughing. Many manage their asthma with quick-acting and long-term controller medicines.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 1 in 13 people in the United States had asthma in 2020. It’s most common among non-Hispanic people of multiple races and American Indian and Alaska Native communities.

Wheezing is a common, but not universal, symptom of asthma. Many people with asthma don’t wheeze while breathing. In some cases, people have “silent” asthma symptoms.

You also may not wheeze if you have an extremely obstructed airway. This could be a sign of severe asthma.

Cough-variant asthma happens when a chronic cough is the only sign you have asthma.

Typically, the cough doesn’t get better with over-the-counter remedies like syrups or drops. Instead, you may need a prescription for an asthma inhaler.

There are different kinds of inhalers. Quick-acting bronchodilators open your airways during an attack. Daily-use corticosteroids help prevent inflammation.

Children and adults with asthma may experience symptoms that don’t include cough or wheezing. These are silent symptoms of asthma.

The two most common silent symptoms are due to airway inflammation: shortness of breath and chest tightness. Muscles around the airways in your lungs become constricted, narrowing the passages into the lungs. This makes it hard to breathe and makes your chest feel tight.

Shortness of breath

You may struggle to breathe or feel like you’re gasping for air. People having a severe asthma attack may also experience rapid changes in breathing rate, exhaling and inhaling either more quickly or slowly. Children may have a “sucked in” appearance of their skin around the neck.

Severe asthma attacks require a quick-acting inhaler and medical attention if symptoms don’t improve.

Chest tightness

If you have problems getting air into your lung, it could lead to a tight feeling in your chest. It might feel as if there’s a band around your lungs. You may also feel pain along with chest tightness.

Children with asthma may not be able to express this feeling in these terms. Instead, they may say that they’re feeling sick.

You can often manage asthma with inhaled or oral corticosteroids. If you have mild to moderate asthma, a doctor may adjust your medications to help keep your symptoms in check. But if changes in treatment don’t work, you may have severe asthma.

In some cases of severe asthma and in life threatening asthma, you may have a silent chest. There’s no wheezing sound because minimal to no air is going in or out of your lungs. This is a serious situation that requires medical attention.

Exercise may also cause the airways in your lungs to narrow. This happens to between 40% to 90% of people with asthma. But it also occurs in about 1 in 5 people without asthma.

Exercise-induced asthma can cause wheezing, but not always. The most common symptom is coughing. Other symptoms include tightness in the chest and trouble breathing.

Your symptoms may become worse a few minutes after you finish exercising. They usually get better within 30 minutes of completing your exercise.

If you don’t have an asthma diagnosis but are experiencing symptoms like chronic cough, chest tightness, and trouble breathing, you may want to see a doctor.

If you live with asthma, you may want to see a doctor regularly for checkups. They can help you review your asthma action plan.

If you have new or worsening symptoms, you may want to discuss them with a doctor. It may be possible to adjust your medications or take other steps to get your asthma under control.

Medical emergency

Seek emergency medical care if you have an onset of asthma symptoms that don’t get better with quick-relief medications. Signs of a serious asthma attack may include:

  • rapid worsening of symptoms
  • change in breathing rate (faster or slower)
  • shallow breathing
  • shortness of breath
  • trouble walking
  • expanded chest that doesn’t deflate upon exhaling

There are three components to a typical asthma treatment plan:

  • Identify your asthma triggers.
  • Choose medications for quick symptom relief and long-term control.
  • Develop an asthma action plan.

These components should be the same even if you don’t have wheezing as a symptom of asthma.

Other treatments for asthma include immunotherapy which may help with allergies that trigger asthma. Biologics for severe asthma work inside your body to treat specific antibodies or cells that cause symptoms.

If you have life threatening asthma or severe asthma symptoms that don’t get better with quick-relief treatments, you may receive emergency care. That may include various interventions such as supplemental oxygen and hospitalization.

Asthma causes your airways to constrict during an attack. Asthma symptoms often include wheezing, but not every person with asthma has this.

In some cases, asthma without wheezing, or a silent chest, is a sign that no air is entering or leaving your lungs. This could mean you have severe asthma. There are several treatments for severe asthma, including immunotherapy and biologics.