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Asthma Symptoms

Asthma is characterized by inflammation of the bronchial tubes with increased production of sticky secretions inside the tubes. People with asthma experience symptoms when the airways tighten, inflame, or fill with mucus. Common asthma symptoms include:

  • Coughing, especially at night
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness, pain, or pressure

Still, not every person with asthma has the same symptoms in the same way. You may not have all of these symptoms, or you may have different symptoms at different times. Your asthma symptoms may also vary from one asthma attack to the next, being mild during one and severe during another.

Some people with asthma may go for extended periods without having any symptoms, interrupted by periodic worsening of their symptoms called asthma attacks. Others might have asthma symptoms every day. In addition, some people may only have asthma during exercise, or asthma with viral infections like colds.

Mild asthma attacks are generally more common. Usually, the airways open up within a few minutes to a few hours. Severe attacks are less common but last longer and require immediate medical help. It is important to recognize and treat even mild asthma symptoms to help you prevent severe episodes and keep asthma under better control. 

Know the Early Symptoms of Asthma

Early warning signs are changes that happen just before or at the very beginning of an asthma attack. These signs may start before the well-known symptoms of asthma and are the earliest signs that your asthma is worsening.

In general, these signs are not severe enough to stop you from going about your daily activities. But by recognizing these signs, you can stop an asthma attack or prevent one from getting worse. Early warning signs of asthma include:

  • Frequent cough, especially at night
  • Losing your breath easily or shortness of breath
  • Feeling very tired or weak when exercising
  • Wheezing or coughing after exercise
  • Feeling tired, easily upset, grouchy, or moody
  • Decreases or changes in lung function as measured on a peak flow meter
  • Signs of a cold or allergies (sneezing, runny nose, cough, nasal congestion, sore throat, and headache)
  • Trouble sleeping

If you have early warning signs or symptoms of asthma, you should take more asthma medication as described in your asthma action plan.

Know the Symptoms of an Asthma Attack

An asthma attack is the episode in which bands of muscle surrounding the airways are triggered to tighten. This tightening is called bronchospasm. During the attack, the lining of the airways becomes swollen or inflamed and the cells lining the airways produce more and thicker mucus than normal.

All of these factors -- bronchospasm, inflammation, and mucus production -- cause symptoms such as difficulty breathing, wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath, and difficulty performing normal daily activities. Other symptoms of an asthma attack include:

  • Severe wheezing when breathing both in and out
  • Coughing that won't stop
  • Very rapid breathing
  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Tightened neck and chest muscles, called retractions
  • Difficulty talking
  • Feelings of anxiety or panic
  • Pale, sweaty face
  • Blue lips or fingernails
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