Asthma is a respiratory condition caused by inflammation and constriction (narrowing) of the airways. It’s a long-term (chronic) condition that requires lifelong management and treatment to help prevent symptoms and reduce your chances of having an asthma attack.

But how do you know for sure if you have asthma? If you’re experiencing a cough or shortness of breath, learn what differentiates asthma from other respiratory conditions and how a doctor can confirm a diagnosis, so you can get the right treatment for your symptoms.

Wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath are among the most common asthma symptoms. In severe flare-ups, you may also feel tightness in your chest.

Unlike other respiratory conditions, asthma symptoms tend to flare up when you’re exposed to triggers, such as:

  • allergens that irritate the airways and cause inflammation
  • exercise that can put stress on the airways and lead to inflammation
  • cold weather conditions that constrict the airways

Symptoms also tend to get worse when you’re trying to sleep at night.

Asthma refers to airway constriction and inflammation, but there are also different subtypes to consider.

Allergic asthma

Allergic asthma is triggered by substances you may be allergic to, such as seasonal pollen or dust mites.

You’re more likely to have allergic asthma if you have a history of hay fever or eczema.

Eosinophilic asthma

Eosinophilic asthma is a form of severe asthma caused by high levels of eosinophils — a type of white blood cell — in the body. This can contribute to airway inflammation and asthma symptoms.

This type of asthma may be diagnosed with a blood test that measures eosinophil levels.

Exercise-induced asthma

Also called exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB), this type of asthma develops when your airways constrict in response to exercise.

Endurance activities, such as long-distance running, are more likely to cause this type of asthma. With treatment, symptoms may become more manageable and allow you to continue participating in these activities.

Occupational asthma

Occupational asthma develops after chronic exposure to irritants, like dusts or chemicals, in workplaces.

This type of asthma can take years to develop, and you may experience symptoms long after exposure.

Coughing and shortness of breath are two classic symptoms of asthma that may also be seen in other conditions.

Here’s how you can tell some of these conditions apart.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

As with asthma, people with COPD may experience coughing and shortness of breath.

But morning coughing with phlegm is more characteristic of COPD. In contrast, asthma tends to cause worsening symptoms at night, and may be accompanied by wheezing and tightness in your chest.

It’s also possible to have both asthma and COPD. Contact a doctor if you’re experiencing symptoms of either condition.

Upper respiratory tract infection (URTI)

Seasonal colds and cases of the flu may increase your risk of developing a URTI. People with asthma are also more prone to these types of infections.

But having a URTI doesn’t automatically mean you have asthma. While both conditions may lead to coughing, a URTI can also result in the following symptoms:

  • fever
  • sore throat
  • sinus pressure
  • nasal congestion
  • runny nose
  • headache
  • muscle aches
  • fatigue

Obliterative bronchiolitis (OB)

OB is marked by chronic shortness of breath, and it may also lead to coughing. Unlike asthma, OB doesn’t cause wheezing and doesn’t respond to asthma medications.

A lung transplant is typically required to successfully treat this condition.

Vocal cord dysfunction (VCD)

Both VCD and asthma have very similar symptoms: coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath. But VCD also causes changes in your voice, including hoarseness.

If you have VCD, you may also have more problems breathing in instead of out. Having trouble breathing out is more often associated with asthma.

Anxiety and hyperventilation syndrome

Both anxiety and hyperventilation syndrome may cause shortness of breath and rapid breathing during flare-ups.

While such breathing difficulties may be mistaken with asthma, these aren’t caused by airway constriction. Wheezing and coughing also aren’t typical with these two conditions.

See a doctor for any chronic coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath that doesn’t seem to have an underlying cause, such as a URTI.

A doctor may also refer you to a specialist, such as an allergist, immunologist, or pulmonologist.

Seek emergency medical help if you’re experiencing significant breathing difficulties or the symptoms of a severe asthma attack, such as:

  • rapid breathing
  • inability to catch your breath or speak more than a few words at a time
  • chest or neck pain
  • increased heart rate
  • bluish or purplish skin

A diagnosis of asthma — and identification of your triggers — is important in getting the correct treatment and improving your quality of life. An asthma treatment plan can also help reduce your risk of asthma attacks.

After assessing your symptoms and listening to your lungs, a doctor may order a combination of the following tests to help diagnose asthma:

A doctor will most likely prescribe a rescue inhaler as a first-line treatment. Also called a quick-relief bronchodilator, an inhaler can help relieve airway constriction in the event of an asthma attack.

Depending on the type and severity of your asthma, a doctor may also prescribe one or more of the following medications:

If you’re diagnosed with asthma, a doctor will help you with a treatment plan that includes:

  • taking your medications as prescribed
  • avoiding your triggers
  • knowing the symptoms of an asthma attack

Personal asthma triggers may vary, but it’s important to identify your own and avoid exposure to them as much as possible.

Common triggers of asthma include:

  • pollen, pet dander, dust mites, mold, and other allergens
  • chemicals, perfumes, and strong odors
  • air pollution and smoke
  • cigarette smoke
  • cold, dry air
  • extreme emotional changes, such as stress

Possible signs of an asthma attack include worsening:

  • wheezing
  • shortness of breath or rapid breathing
  • coughing
  • chest tightness

If you think you’re having a mild to moderate asthma attack, use your prescribed rescue inhaler for quick relief. Symptoms that don’t improve should be further evaluated by a doctor.

In the case of a severe asthma attack, always seek emergency medical attention right away. A severe asthma attack may cause significant breathing difficulties as well as with heart rate changes and pale skin.

Asthma is a chronic condition that requires lifelong treatment to help prevent flare-ups and possible hospitalization. Since other conditions share similar symptoms, it’s important to get an evaluation from a doctor.

With the right asthma treatment plan, you can reduce your risk of asthma attacks and improve your overall quality of life.