Signs and Symptoms of Asthma

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Asthma is a chronic (long-term) condition that is marked by inflammation and swelling in the airways in the lungs. Asthma can make breathing difficult and if not treated, can be life threatening. But if you know your asthma signs and symptoms, you can prevent a full-blown asthma attack.

What Are the Early Asthma Signs and Symptoms?

Asthma signs and symptoms can vary from person to person. Early asthma signs are not always obvious. In fact, asthma symptoms may not become apparent until they are severe.

Watch for these subtle or vague signs and symptoms that your asthma is worsening:

  • Anxiety, restlessness and irritability

  • Breathing difficulty with activity

  • Coughing, especially at night when you are lying down

  • Feeling tired when doing your usual activities

  • Mild wheezing, a high-pitched whistling sound made when you breathe

  • Symptoms of a cold or other respiratory infection, such as runny nose, sore throat, or cough

  • Trouble sleeping or waking at night

If you’ve already been diagnosed with asthma, follow your doctor's instructions on how to monitor your breathing using a peak flow meter. This small device measures the amount of air flowing out of your lungs as you blow into it. It's easy to use and provides reliable information. Peak flow meter readings can reveal when your breathing tubes are narrowing. If you use your peak flow meter regularly and properly, it can help detect an oncoming asthma attack even before you feel asthma symptoms.

Act Quickly to Treat Early Symptoms

When you notice your asthma is getting worse, you should use your quick-relief asthma inhaler containing one of these medicines:

  • Albuterol sulfate (ProAir, Proventil, Ventolin, AccuNeb Inhalation solution)

  • Levalbuterol HCl (Xopenex)

  • Pirbuterol (Maxair)

Quick-relief asthma medicines work rapidly to stop sudden or acute asthma symptoms. If you still do not feel better after about an hour, your doctor may want you to take an oral corticosteroid pill. Corticosteroids, such as methylprednisolone (Medrol), reduce the inflammation in your airways to help you breathe easier. 

What Are the Later Asthma Signs and Symptoms?

As your asthma attack progresses, your asthma signs and symptoms will become obvious and distressing. Later asthma signs include:

  • Blue, pale or grey coloring in your face, lips or fingernails

  • Chest tightness

  • Difficulty speaking

  • Fatigue, or feeling very tired

  • Flared nostrils

  • Need to sit upright

  • Persistent cough

  • Rapid breathing and shortness of breath

  • Sweating

  • Tightening of the skin and muscles of your neck, chest or stomach in a way that makes them retract, or appear to pull in, when breathing

  • Wheezing

If your symptoms do not rapidly get better by taking your prescribed home treatment, contact your healthcare provider immediately, or call 911.
By recognizing your early asthma signs and taking steps to control your asthma symptoms before they become more severe, you can prevent a serious asthma attack. If you have to take your quick-relief medicine several times a week, tell your doctor. Your daily asthma medicines may need to be adjusted or changed.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Feb 11

  1. Asthma. KidsHealth from Nemours.

  2. Asthma. American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology.

  3. Peak Flow Meter: Tips to Remember. American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology.

  4. Asthma Action Plan. National Institutes of Health. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

  5. So You Have Asthma. National Institutes of Health. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

  6. Asthma Publications/Fact Sheets. National Institutes of Health. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

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