Asthma Symptoms: What You Need To Know

Man bothered by air pollution.

Asthma leads to symptoms such as wheezing, chest tightness, shortness of breath, or cough. Asthma symptoms are caused primarily due to constriction, tightening of the muscles surrounding the airways, and inflammation, soreness, swelling, and irritation of the airways in the lungs.

But asthma is a complex disease. There are several different types of asthma, not all of which may behave exactly the way you might expect them to.

It is important to understand the asthma symptoms that might affect you, and that starts with an open conversation with your doctor. If you know your mild asthma symptoms, you might be able to prevent an asthma attack. Not recognizing more severe asthma symptoms might cause you to delay care and, in some cases, put you at risk for hospitalization or even a life-threatening asthma attack.

Know the Early Signs That Your Asthma Is Not Well Controlled

Before experiencing the classic signs of asthma, you may notice a number of changes that could clue you in that your asthma is worsening. These early warning signs include:

  • Increased nighttime cough
  • Cough or wheezing with physical activity
  • Tiredness with activities that you normally could complete easily
  • Decreases in your peak expiratory flow rate (PEFR)
  • Restless sleep or waking up tired
  • Worsening allergy symptoms like persistent runny nose, dark circles under your eyes, or itchy, inflamed skin

    Understand the Classic Signs and Symptoms of Worsening Asthma

    As asthma worsens, the airways narrow, become inflamed, and fill with mucus. Patients may experience the following symptoms:

    If the early symptoms are not recognized and treated, you may begin to notice more classic asthma symptoms.

    As your symptoms worsen and the airways narrow, you will notice increased difficulty completing your normal activities. You may also:

    • Hear yourself wheezing
    • Experience a cough that just won't go away (day or night)
    • Have more trouble falling asleep and getting a good nights rest
    • Have PEFRs well into the yellow zone
    • Get less relief from your 'quick relief' medications

    Know the Signs of a Possible Emergency

    If your asthma symptoms become more severe, you will most probably not be able to perform your regular activities. At this stage, you will need to follow the actions described in the red zone of your asthma action plan and seek prompt medical attention, as these symptoms can represent potentially life-threatening asthma.

    Emergent symptoms of asthma include:

    • Severe wheezing while breathing both in and out
    • Breathing very fast
    • Getting short of breath while talking/having difficulty talking
    • A feeling of impending doom or panic
    • Profuse sweating
    • Inability to perform PEFR
    • Color changes in fingertips

    Nearly just as important as knowing the symptoms of asthma, knowing what triggers the symptoms is key to avoiding problems with your asthma.

    Planning to Prevent Asthma Symptoms

    The key to preventing asthma symptoms is a good plan.

    An asthma action plan can help you recognize early warning signs and how to act to prevent an asthma attack.

    These written plans usually detail your asthma triggers, symptoms you need to watch for, ideal peak flow readings, and what actions you need to take. They are divided into three zones: green, yellow, and red, just like a traffic light.

    • If you're in the green zone, your asthma is under good control, you are generally symptom free, and your peak flow readings are in your healthy range.
    • As you develop more symptoms, you cross into the yellow zone. Your peak flows will decrease and your asthma action plan will provide specific actions to take.
    • Finally, in the red zone, your symptoms are more severe. If actions don't quickly help you get back to the green or yellow zone, you will need to seek emergency care.

    Your plan will cover three main areas:

    1. Monitoring: When we monitor our asthma symptoms, we are better able to control them.
    2. Avoidance of triggers: Prevention is of the utmost importance. While there is no medicine that will prevent you from getting asthma, asthma can be controlled. You can prevent asthma symptoms from significantly impacting you by avoiding situations that lead to a worsening of your asthma.
    3. Treatment with medications: You need to take some medicines every day to prevent symptoms (controller medications); others can be used only when you need relief of acute symptoms (reliever medications). Make sure that you know how and when to take each, and what the side effects you need to watch for.

    The more you are aware of the nuances of your asthma and the details of your asthma action plan, and the more you are attuned to your own body, the more control you have over living your best life with asthma.


    American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology. Is Your Asthma Allergic? Consumer Information Sheet.

    Asthma. In Chest Medicine: Essentials Of Pulmonary And Critical Care Medicine. Editors: Ronald B. George, Richard W. Light, Richard A. Matthay, Michael A. Matthay. May 2005, 5th edition.

    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Consumer Information. Asthma.

    Expert Panel Report 3 (EPR3): Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Asthma.

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