The Most Common Asthma Symptoms You Should Know

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Medically Reviewed By:
Mark Arredondo, M.D.

FRIDAY, May 12, 2023 (HealthDay News) -- Asthma can be a tough disease to control, but to control it you first need to know if you have it.

A chronic condition, there are telltale symptoms that crop up when an asthma attack strikes and knowing what those are could help you avoid a life-threatening emergency.

According to the most recent data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, asthma affects 7.8% of Americans. Asthma occurs when the airways become inflamed and narrow, which hinders airflow. More mucus is produced, which further blocks the air from moving in and out of the lungs. When something in the environment causes irritation, tiny muscles squeeze the airways, narrowing them even more.

This is called an asthma attack, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. While the effects of asthma vary from minor to severe, here are the most common symptoms of asthma.

Shortness of breath

One of the most common asthma symptoms, shortness of breath can be quite frightening, Mount Sinai says. When the airways narrow and more mucus is produced you have trouble pulling enough air in, as well as pushing it out. When this happens, you become short of breath, breathe faster and more shallowly, and use more muscles to get enough air in. This shortness of breath can come on suddenly, with exercise, or even when you are at rest.


A cough is the body’s way of expelling an irritant, but when it is due to inflammation in the airways, it can be a chronic problem. This common asthma symptom in adults or children occurs because the airways are hyper-responsive to irritants such as dust, cold or dry air, pollen, smoke, and colds or flu. The narrowed and irritable airways cause a cough that is usually nonproductive (you don’t cough anything up). An asthma cough often is worse at night due to a variety of reasons, including sinus drainage, increased irritants, changes in air temperature or humidity, and an inability to keep on top of the inflammation while sleeping.


Wheezing is a high pitched, shrill whistling sound that occurs when the airway is obstructed or narrowed, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Very common in infants and children with asthma, wheezing is a definite sign of an asthma attack in any patient with asthma.

If the wheezing is new or occurs with other asthma symptoms, you should see your physician. If the wheezing doesn't respond to your asthma treatments, you should immediately go to the emergency room for evaluation and treatment.

As with the other symptoms of asthma, wheezing is set off by irritants in the environment and a narrowing of the airways.

Chest tightness or pain

Another symptom of asthma is chest tightness or chest pain. According to Mount Sinai, chest tightness without any other symptoms may be an early indicator of an asthma attack. It can feel like you have someone sitting on your chest or you have a band tightening around your chest. Also, with the increased work of breathing and frequent coughing, you may experience chest pain caused by sore muscles.

Serious asthma attack symptoms

While all of these are symptoms of asthma, and can be signs of an asthma attack, there are some symptoms that should cause you to seek immediate medical care. These include:

  • Wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath that become more severe and constant

  • Rapid heart rate and respiratory rate

  • Blue-tinged lips or fingers

  • Confusion, drowsiness, exhaustion or dizziness

  • Too short of breath to talk

  • Fainting

It is important for patients with asthma to follow their physician’s instructions carefully and make an appointment quickly if their symptoms become less controlled. Avoid irritants and things that set off your asthma whenever possible, and be diligent to take your medications as prescribed. Having good day-to-day control of asthma is a key to keeping symptoms at bay and preventing asthma attacks, says Dr. John Costello, a pulmonologist at Mayo Clinic Healthcare in London.

"The prevention of asthma as a condition is quite difficult," Costello noted in a recent Mayo Clinic article. "What you can prevent is the frequency and severity of attacks by the use of regular treatment."

If you experience these asthma symptoms, make an appointment to see your physician as soon as possible. A prompt assessment by a health care provider is needed so a proper diagnosis and treatment plan can be created.

What This Means For You

Do you know the symptoms of an asthma attack? It could help avoid a life-threatening emergency, and here experts walk you through the telltale signs of an asthma flare-up.

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