Is trouble breathing a sign of asthma?

Answers from James T C Li, M.D., Ph.D.

Trouble breathing that lasts more than a few weeks can be a sign of asthma. For many people, the main signs and symptoms of asthma are wheezing, shortness of breath, excess mucus and chest tightness. For others, chronic cough that comes and goes periodically may be the main or only symptom of asthma.

These symptoms also can be caused by other conditions, including respiratory infections, bronchitis, hay fever (allergic rhinitis), certain medications, acid reflux and heart disease (cardiovascular disease).

The following factors increase the likelihood that asthma may be causing your symptoms:

  • You have periodic bouts of coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath that last more than a few weeks.
  • Symptoms seem to be caused by specific triggers, such as allergy-causing substances (allergens), cold air, exercise, or pollutants such as chemical fumes, engine exhaust or cigarette smoke.
  • You're an adult who had asthma or asthma-like symptoms as a child.
  • You have hay fever or other allergies, or you have family members with allergies or asthma.

See your doctor if you have a cough or other respiratory symptoms that last more than a few weeks. Even if it isn't asthma, it may be something that needs treatment. If you have severe trouble breathing or shortness of breath accompanied by chest pain or nausea, seek immediate emergency care.

Oct. 10, 2014