Understanding asthma symptoms

Reviewed by:
Angela DiLaura, NP
Clinical Informatics and Quality Manager
Last updated on November 15, 2022 UTC

For many, breathing easy comes naturally and requires little effort. However, for the nearly 25 million Americans who suffer from asthma, it can be complicated.

What is asthma?

Asthma is a chronic lung disease and is characterized by the following three things:

  • Swelling and narrowing of the airway.
  • Excess mucus clogging the airways.
  • Muscles that tighten and squeeze around the airways.

When asthma occurs, air is unable to easily move in and out of the airways making it hard to breathe and often results in coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath. 

What causes asthma?

Asthma can occur in people with no risk factors, but there usually are identifiable causes. According to the American Lung Association (ALA), “a combination of genetics and exposure to certain elements in the environment put people at the greatest risk of developing asthma.”

A medical article published in the National Library of Medicine found that the occurrence of asthma in children with one asthmatic parent is 25% and doubles to 50% if both parents have asthma. Another link has been found between children who experienced viral respiratory infections in infancy and early childhood to later getting diagnosed with asthma, according to the ALA.

Environmental factors such as air pollution, exposure to secondhand smoke, noxious chemicals and vapors, certain dust and molds have all been linked to asthma. 

More recently, a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that obesity can lead to a higher risk of developing asthma as an adult.

What are the symptoms?

Many people who experience asthma for the first time have described it as feeling like they are “breathing through a straw.” 

Here are some common symptoms of asthma:

  • Coughing 
    Usually worse at night, but mild or severe coughing can also happen during exercise and throughout the day. Sometimes it can bring up mucus or phlegm.
  • Respiratory 
    Difficulty breathing, frequent colds, bronchitis, or other respiratory infections, shortness of breath, fast breathing and wheezing, which can sound like whistling.
  • Chest tightness 
    ⁠Can feel like tightness or pressure and has been described as feeling as if something is squeezing or sitting on your chest.

Some may be surprised to learn there are different types of asthma. In fact, according to the ALA, asthma is no longer thought of as a “single disease.”

The ALA lists the following different types of asthma:

  • Allergic asthma 
    ⁠Triggered by inhaled allergens such as dust mites, pet dander, pollen, mold, etc.
  • Aspirin-induced asthma 
    ⁠Occurs after taking aspirin or other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.
  • Cough-variant asthma 
    ⁠A type of asthma where the main symptom is a dry, non-productive cough. People with this type of asthma typically don’t have other classic asthma symptoms such as wheezing.
  • Exercise-induced asthma 
    ⁠When asthma symptoms occur only during exercise. Coughing is the most common symptom.
  • Nighttime asthma 
    ⁠When asthma symptoms are worse at night.
  • Steroid-resistant asthma 
    ⁠People with asthma symptoms who don’t respond or poorly respond to oral or inhaled steroids are often diagnosed with this type of asthma.
  • Occupational asthma 
    ⁠Occurs when people breath in chemical fumes, gasses or dust while on the job.

As with many illnesses and conditions, symptoms and their frequency vary from person to person. Anyone concerned about asthma symptoms should see their online or in-person primary care physician as it is a serious condition that can be life-threatening if not treated.

How to treat asthma

An online or in-person primary care doctor can help someone with asthma manage their symptoms with medications taken through an inhaler, pill, or a combination of the two. The type of treatment depends on a person’s age, asthma triggers, and severity.

Inhalers, which are devices that let you breathe in medicine, can be used for short-term or long-term relief from asthma symptoms. Anti-inflammatories such as steroids are often used because they block the body's inflammatory response and improve lung function.

For people whose asthma may be related to seasonal allergies, immunotherapy (allergy shots) can provide relief. There are many asthma medications to choose from, and a doctor can help determine the best treatment plan.

Managing asthma

Because asthma is an ongoing condition, it will need to be managed long-term. A few ways to keep asthma under control is to keep regular appointments with your doctor, keep track of existing symptoms and any new symptoms, and be aware of triggers. It’s important to develop and follow a medical plan with your doctor and take medication properly. 

Because the flu and pneumonia can be worse for someone with asthma, staying up to date on vaccinations is vital.

A healthy lifestyle will also go a long way in helping you manage asthma. Along with medication, eating well, staying active and reducing stress can prevent asthma symptoms from flaring up.

The ALA lists the following indicators that your asthma is under control:

  • You use a rescue inhaler less than three times a week.
  • Asthma doesn’t wake you up during the night.
  • You can do daily activities, including exercise, with few or little symptoms.

With a medical plan in place, medication and vigilance, it’s possible to live a normal life with asthma. 

Need to talk to a doctor about asthma symptoms or medications? Consult with a HealthTap primary care doctor online and get the help you need. 


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