Asthma symptoms range from minor to severe and vary from person to person. You may have infrequent asthma attacks, have symptoms only at certain times — such as when exercising — or have symptoms all the time.
Asthma signs and symptoms include:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest tightness or pain
- Trouble sleeping caused by shortness of breath, coughing or wheezing
- A whistling or wheezing sound when exhaling (wheezing is a common sign of asthma in children)
- Coughing or wheezing attacks that are worsened by a respiratory virus, such as a cold or the flu
Signs that your asthma is probably worsening include:
- Asthma signs and symptoms that are more frequent and bothersome
- Increasing difficulty breathing (measurable with a peak flow meter, a device used to check how well your lungs are working)
- The need to use a quick-relief inhaler more often
For some people, asthma symptoms flare up in certain situations:
- Exercise-induced asthma, which may be worse when the air is cold and dry
- Occupational asthma, triggered by workplace irritants such as chemical fumes, gases or dust
- Allergy-induced asthma, triggered by particular allergens, such as pet dander, cockroaches or pollen
When to see a doctor
Seek emergency treatment
Severe asthma attacks can be life-threatening. Work with your doctor ahead of time to determine what to do when your signs and symptoms worsen — and when you need emergency treatment. Signs of an asthma emergency include:
- Rapid worsening of shortness of breath or wheezing
- No improvement even after using a quick-relief inhaler, such as albuterol
- Shortness of breath when you are doing minimal physical activity
Contact your doctor
See your doctor:
Feb. 13, 2014
- If you think you have asthma. If you have frequent coughing or wheezing that lasts more than a few days or any other signs or symptoms of asthma, see your doctor. Treating asthma early may prevent long-term lung damage and help keep the condition from worsening over time.
- To monitor your asthma after diagnosis. If you know you have asthma, work with your doctor to keep it under control. Good long-term control helps you feel better on a daily basis and can prevent a life-threatening asthma attack.
- If your asthma symptoms get worse. Contact your doctor right away if your medication doesn't seem to ease your symptoms or if you need to use your quick-relief inhaler more often. Don't try to solve the problem by taking more medication without consulting your doctor. Overusing asthma medication can cause side effects and may make your asthma worse.
- To review your treatment. Asthma often changes over time. Meet with your doctor on a regular basis to discuss your symptoms and make any needed treatment adjustments.
- Expert panel report 3 (EPR-3): Guidelines for the diagnosis and management of asthma. Bethesda, Md.: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/guidelines/asthma/. Accessed Sept. 13, 2013.
- Bailey W, et al. What do patients need to know about their asthma? http://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed Sept. 13, 2013.
- Fanta CH. Treatment of acute exacerbations of asthma in adults. http://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed Sept. 13, 2013.
- What is asthma? National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/asthma/. Accessed Sept. 13, 2013.
- Hazeldine V. Pharmacological management of acute asthma exacerbations in adults. Nursing Standard. 2013;27:43.
- Bope ET, et al. Conn's Current Therapy. Philadelphia, Pa.: Saunders Elsevier; 2013. http://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed Sept. 13, 2013.
- Diagnosis and Management of Asthma Guideline. Bloomington, Minn. Institute for Clinical Systems Improvement. http://mayoweb.mayo.edu/etc-ame/icsi/Asthma.pdf. Accessed Aug. 3, 2013.
- Updated information on leukotriene inhibitors: Montelukast (marketed as Singulair), zafirlukast (marketed as Accolate), and zileuton (marketed as Zyflo and Zyflo CR). U.S. Food and Drug Administration. http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/DrugSafety/PostmarketDrugSafetyInformationforPatientsandProviders/DrugSafetyInformationforHeathcareProfessionals/ucm165489.htm. Accessed Sept. 12, 2013.
- Asthma. Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database. http://www.naturaldatabase.com. Accessed Sept. 13, 2013.
- Alternative therapies. Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. http://www.aafa.org/display.cfm?id=8&sub=16&cont=40. Accessed Sept. 13, 2013.
- Sheshadri A, et al. Bronchial thermoplasty: A novel therapy for severe asthma. Clinics in Chest Medicine. 2013;34:437.
- Li JTC (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. Sept. 20, 2013.
You Are ... The Campaign for Mayo Clinic
Mayo Clinic is a not-for-profit organization. Make a difference today.