Asthma is a chronic lung disease that can make it hard to breathe. It’s one of the most common diseases pregnant women experience. It’s also the most common pulmonary disease women encounter during pregnancy. According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, it affects an estimated 8 percent of women during childbearing years.

If you already have asthma, there’s no way to know how your pregnancy will affect it. Your asthma may get worse during pregnancy or stay the same. There’s also a small chance that your asthma will improve while you’re pregnant.

Even if you don’t have any history of asthma, you may experience an asthma attack while you’re pregnant. Learn about the symptoms and potential risks of asthma during pregnancy.

What are the symptoms of asthma?

If you’ve never had an asthma attack before, it’s still possible for you to experience one during pregnancy. Common symptoms of asthma include:

  • tightness in the chest
  • trouble breathing
  • shortness of breath
  • coughing
  • wheezing

If you have a history of asthma, watch for signs that your asthma is getting worse. For example, let your doctor know if you’re coughing or wheezing more than usual. You should also get medical advice if you’re using your inhaler, or rescue medication, more often than you did before you became pregnant.

“Remember, your asthma will be different than before you were pregnant,” says Niket Sonpal, M.D., an assistant professor of clinical medicine at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in Harlem, New York. “The playing field is different, and you will need the help of your clinician to traverse it.”

If your asthma symptoms get worse, there’s a good chance you’ll notice it in the second or third trimester. Although there’s no cure for asthma, treatments are available to help you manage your condition. Your doctor can help you develop or adapt your asthma treatment plan for pregnancy.

What causes these changes during pregnancy?

Experts haven’t pinpointed the exact cause of changes to asthma during pregnancy. It likely involves hormones, says Larry Altshuler, M.D., a practicing internist, hospitalist, and integrative practitioner at the Southwest Regional Medical Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

“Estrogen can cause stuffiness in the nose and sinuses, and progesterone can cause increased respiratory drive and a feeling of shortness of breath,” Altshuler says. “The problem is with the erratic production of estrogen and progesterone that can cause symptoms.”

Potential complications

A lack of oxygen due to asthma symptoms cannot only affect you, but also your unborn baby.

Uncontrolled asthma puts women at higher risk of some complications, including:

  • preterm labor
  • severe morning sickness
  • pregnancy-induced hypertension
  • preeclampsia, a serious condition that can cause unusually high blood pressure

A lack of oxygen can also raise your unborn baby’s risk of health problems, such as:

  • a low birth weight
  • neonatal hypoxia
  • perinatal mortality

According to Sopal, you’re more likely to experience premature delivery if your asthma symptoms worsened in the year before your pregnancy. It’s important to work closely with your doctor to control your asthma symptoms, especially if you’re planning to get pregnant.

“If asthma is well-controlled, most women should have minimal to no problems with their pregnancy,” Altshuler says. “It’s when it’s not controlled that it’s dangerous to the mother and baby.”

How to treat the symptoms of asthma

Your doctor will likely prescribe two types of medication to help manage your asthma.

The first is a long-acting “controller medication,” which helps prevent asthma attacks. They may also prescribe a short-acting “rescue medication,” which helps relieve symptoms during an asthma attack.

Your doctor will also help you learn to identify and avoid your triggers, which are things that make your asthma worse.

If you already have an asthma plan in place, review it with your doctor when you become pregnant. You can also ask about any changes you should make. Tell your doctor if you find you’re experiencing regular asthma symptoms despite taking your medications as prescribed.

Your doctor may also advise you to monitor your baby’s movements during pregnancy. If you notice less movement during an asthma attack, get medical treatment immediately. You should also seek emergency medical care if you have to strain to breathe during an asthma attack.

Read more: Common asthma triggers and how to avoid them »

How to reduce the likelihood of an asthma attack

You may not be able to prevent all asthma symptoms during pregnancy, but you can take steps to lower your risk of an asthma attack:

  • If you have allergies, avoid your allergens.
  • Remove potential irritants from your home, such as air fresheners or certain cleaning supplies.
  • Don’t sleep within two hours of eating. Gastroesophageal reflux, or acid reflux, is common during pregnancy, and it can trigger asthma symptoms.

You should also be careful about traveling to remote areas of the world. It may be more difficult to get medical care for your asthma if you are in an isolated or distant region.

Taking steps to control your asthma can help you lower your risk of complications during pregnancy. Develop an asthma plan with your doctor, avoid your asthma triggers, and take medications as prescribed. Tell your doctor if you notice changes in your asthma symptoms. They can help you adjust your asthma treatment plan to help keep you and your unborn baby safe.

Keep reading: Stay active with your asthma action plan »