Signs and Symptoms of Asthma

Asthma is a chronic lung disease that affects the airways, causing the tubes that carry air in and out of the lungs to become inflamed and narrowed. With asthma, your airways become swollen and the surrounding muscles tighten and squeeze around them, making breathing difficult.Common asthma symptoms include shortness of breath, wheezing, chest tightness, and coughing.

Asthma symptoms can range from mild to severe, with some people experiencing only occasional discomfort while others may have ongoing symptoms that interfere with daily activities. Symptoms may develop gradually or appear suddenly, depending on the severity of your asthma and your sensitivity to triggers. When symptoms worsen after certain activities like exercise or in response to specific triggers, such as allergens, pollen, or pet dander, it is known as an asthma attack or flare-up.

While asthma is a chronic condition, symptoms can fluctuate over time. Some people may have periods of relatively stable symptoms followed by sudden flares, while others may experience more gradual changes in their symptoms over time. Understanding the patterns and triggers of asthma symptoms is an important part of managing the condition effectively.

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Shortness of Breath

Shortness of breath is one of the most common symptoms of asthma. When the airways become inflamed and narrowed, breathing may take more effort than normal. You may feel like you can’t catch your breath or cannot take a deep breath. This symptom is often described as “air hunger” and can range from mild to extreme shortness of breath, such as during an asthma attack.

Some people experience frequent shortness of breath, which limits their ability to engage in certain activities, like sports or running. For others, shortness of breath may develop gradually or suddenly after exposure to a trigger, such as pollen or dust mites.

Difficulty Breathing

Difficulty breathing is a classic asthma symptom. Inflammation and narrowing of the airways can make it harder for air to flow in and out of the lungs, and you may feel like you can’t breathe in enough oxygen-rich air. 

During an asthma attack, trouble breathing may be mild initially, especially as you exhale. Over time it may be hard to inhale too, and you may feel as though you are gasping for breath. Many people with asthma who experience difficulty breathing may feel scared or panic, which can worsen symptoms. Strong emotions cause muscles to tighten and increase your breathing rate.


Wheezing is a whistling sound that occurs when air flows through narrowed or swollen airways. The sound can be heard through a stethoscope. When the airways become abnormally narrowed, airflow is restricted, which causes whistling sounds—usually when you exhale. Some people may hear a crackling or rattling sound in the throat and wheezing due to excess mucus production in the airways. 

Many people with asthma do not experience frequent wheezing when they are in their usual state of health, but may notice it during an asthma attack. When this occurs, the whistling sound may be not only while breathing out but also while breathing in. 

Chest Tightness

Chest tightness is a sensation of pressure or weight on the chest or a feeling like something is squeezing around the chest. This can be uncomfortable and sometimes painful and may accompany other classic asthma symptoms, like difficulty breathing, or felt on its own.

Narrowed airways can lead to a feeling of tightness or discomfort in the chest as the muscles around the airways work harder to try to open them up. The sensation of chest tightness in asthma is often described as the feeling of someone sitting on your chest, making it difficult to take deep breaths. Some people may experience it as a sharp stabbing pain or dull ache.  


Coughing is a reflex action of the body that helps to clear the airways of irritants and excess mucus. With asthma, coughing is caused by inflammation and narrowing of the airways. In response, the body produces more mucus, which can make the cough worse. 

Coughing in asthma can be worse at night and can be either dry or productive (with mucus). It may be a persistent, chronic cough that occurs throughout the day, or it may be more intermittent and occur only during asthma flares or in response to triggers like exercise or after exposure to specific allergens.

Symptoms in Children 

Asthma is a common respiratory condition in children According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 12 children in the United States—about 6 million—have asthma.

Asthma symptoms in children can vary depending on the child's age, the severity of the condition, and the specific triggers. Symptoms of asthma in children are similar to symptoms in adults. They may include: 

  • Wheezing 
  • Coughing, especially at night or early morning 
  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid breathing
  • Chest tightness or discomfort
  • Fatigue during or after play or exercise 
  • Dark circles under the eyes
  • Frequent respiratory infections that may linger and last longer than expected

Young children may not always be able to describe or identify their asthma symptoms. Parents should look for symptoms such as rapid breathing and coughing in infants and toddlers. Children may become irritable, restless, or have a decreased appetite when experiencing asthma symptoms. 

When to See a Healthcare Provider 

If you suspect you have asthma but have not been diagnosed, see your healthcare provider for an evaluation. They may refer to you a pulmonologist, a medical doctor who specializes in treating lung conditions. You may also be referred to an allergist if you have associated concerns for environmental allergies that are triggering your asthma.

If you have an asthma diagnosis, your healthcare provider will monitor your condition and develop a treatment plan to ensure your asthma is well-controlled. If your symptoms worsen or are no longer well-managed with your treatments, you should check in with your provider to reevaluate your treatment plan. You may also work with a respiratory therapist, a healthcare provider who specializes helping physicians treat patients with lung and heart conditions.

Asthma symptoms that warrant medical intervention include:

  • Increased or persistent coughing, wheezing, or shortness of breath
  • Difficulty breathing that is not relieved by your usual medications
  • Persistent chest tightness or pain
  • Fatigue or lethargy during or after exercise
  • Needing to use your rescue inhaler more frequently than usual

If you experience these symptoms, your healthcare provider may recommend adjusting your treatment plan or additional tests or therapies to help manage your symptoms and prevent complications.

When to Seek Immediate Medical Attention

Asthma attacks can cause severe symptoms that require immediate treatment to prevent life-threatening complications. Asthma symptoms that warrant emergency medical care include:

  • Severe shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Rapid breathing or a feeling of air hunger
  • Bluish discoloration of the lips or face
  • Severe wheezing or coughing that is not relieved by medication
  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Confusion or agitation 
  • Difficulty speaking 

If you or a loved one have asthma, it is important to be aware of signs that indicate the need for emergency evaluation and treatment and have a plan in place to help manage these emergencies. 

A Quick Review 

Asthma is a common lung disease that causes shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, wheezing, chest tightness, and coughing. Symptoms can range in severity from mild to life-threatening. Some people experience asthma symptoms daily, while others may only notice symptoms after activities like exercise or exposure to triggers, such as pollen or cigarette smoke.

Asthma attacks cause more severe common symptoms and may cause additional symptoms, such as bluish lips, agitation, and difficulty speaking. Severe asthma attacks may require emergency medical treatment. 

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