Asthma: Steps in testing and diagnosis

Diagnosing asthma generally includes a medical history, physical exam and lung tests. By Mayo Clinic Staff

Asthma diagnosis is based on a number of things, including a physical exam, answers to questions about your symptoms and overall health, and results of lung tests or other tests.

Medical history

The first step in diagnosing asthma is talking to your doctor about your symptoms and your health. This can provide clues as to whether your symptoms are most likely caused by asthma or may be caused by something else. Your doctor will likely ask:

  • What are your exact symptoms? When do they occur, and does anything specific seem to trigger them?
  • Are you often exposed to tobacco smoke, chemical fumes, dust or other airborne irritants?
  • Do you have hay fever or another allergic condition?
  • Do you have any blood relatives with asthma, hay fever, or other allergies?
  • What health problems do you have?
  • What medications or herbal supplements do you take? (Many medications can trigger asthma.)
  • What is your occupation?
  • Do you have pet birds or raise pigeons? (In some people, exposure to birds can cause asthma-like symptoms.)

Physical exam

Your doctor may:

  • Examine your nose, throat and upper airways (upper respiratory tract).
  • Use a stethoscope to listen to your breathing. Wheezing — high-pitched whistling sounds when you breathe out — is one of the main signs of asthma.
  • Examine your skin for signs of allergic conditions such as eczema and hives.

Your doctor will want to know whether you have common signs and symptoms of asthma, such as:

  • Recurrent wheezing
  • Coughing
  • Trouble breathing
  • Chest tightness
  • Symptoms that occur or worsen at night
  • Symptoms that are triggered by cold air, exercise or exposure to allergens.

Asthma signs and symptoms in children
In children, additional signs and symptoms may signal asthma. These may include:

  • Breathing that is louder than normal or faster than normal. Newborns typically take 30 to 60 breaths a minute. Toddlers typically take 20 to 40 breaths a minute.
  • Frequent coughing or coughing that worsens after active play.
  • Coughing, clear mucus and a runny nose caused by hay fever.
  • Frequent missed school days.
  • Limited participation in physical activities.
Jun. 23, 2011 See more In-depth