5 Symptoms Never to Ignore If You Have Asthma

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
  • Twenty-six million American have asthma, a chronic lung disease characterized by shortness of breath and labored breathing. With appropriate treatment, though, most people with asthma can exercise, play, work and enjoy daily life.

    But even people with well-controlled asthma experience the occasional asthma attack. If you or a loved one has asthma, it’s important to recognize the symptoms of a potential problem. If you notice any of the following symptoms, seek medical care.

  • 1
    Shortness of breath
    Senior African American woman in park with hand on stomach

    Shortness of breath is a classic symptom of asthma, and most people with asthma will experience it from time to time. In fact, anyone who has asthma should have an asthma control plan that outlines how to handle episodes of shortness of breath. If you don’t have an asthma control plan, ask your healthcare provider to help you develop one.

    If you are so short of breath that’s it’s hard to speak more than a few words at a time, call 911.

  • 2
    Decreased peak flow
    peak flow meter for asthma

    Many people with asthma use a peak flow meter—an inexpensive handheld device—to monitor their lung function. The device is useful because it can detect changes in lung function before you feel them.

    If you use a peak flow meter, keep track of your readings, and remember your personal best. If your peak flow is ever less than half of your personal best, call your healthcare provider for advice. You may need additional treatment.

  • 3
    Continued symptoms, despite medication

    If you’ve been taking your medication as directed, but you still have shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, call your healthcare provider. You may be experiencing an asthma attack, or your condition might be getting worse. Your healthcare provider will likely need to examine you and perform some tests to determine why your medication regimen isn’t sufficiently controlling your asthma. A change of treatment may be necessary.

  • 4
    Productive cough

    People with asthma are at increased risk of developing pneumonia, a potentially serious lung infection. If you are coughing more than usual or coughing up greenish or yellow mucus, call your healthcare provider. Early diagnosis and treatment of pneumonia is critical. If you delay treatment, your infection might be much harder to treat.

    Coughing up mucus can also be a sign of increased lung irritation. (A cough is your body’s way of trying to get rid of an irritant.) It’s important for you and your healthcare provider to figure out what might be causing the increased irritation.

  • 5
    Chest tightness
    woman on park bench with chest pain

    Asthma narrows the airways, making it difficult to breathe. Some people with asthma describe chest tightness as “feeling like someone is sitting on my chest.” This tightness—especially if accompanied by labored breathing—always warrants a call to your healthcare provider. You might be having an asthma attack, and additional treatment may be necessary to re-open your airways. The sooner you contact your healthcare provider, the sooner you’ll find relief.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 19
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.