Symptom watch: Do I have asthma?

A lot of people live with asthma symptoms for a while without knowing they have asthma. The clues can be subtle. Feeling winded with a touch of wheezing can be passed off easily as just being out of shape.

But all wheezing, however minor or brief, should be checked out. Untreated asthma, even appearing at first as mild wheezing, can return with a vengeance as a severe attack. And unexplained shortness of breath or frequent coughing, especially at night, can mean asthma even if there is no wheezing. These can also be a sign of other serious conditions. These symptoms should prompt you to seek medical attention.

Only your doctor can tell if you have asthma. The diagnosis is formally made in a doctor’s office, combining information about your symptoms, a physical examination and data obtained from a lung function test.

Common asthma symptoms
The four symptoms typical of asthma are:

Wheezing. This is a high-pitched whistling sound when you breathe. It is due to air moving through narrowed airways. The sound is most obvious when breathing out, but it can also occur when inhaling. Cough. Mucus, produced with an asthma attack, acts as an irritant that can lead to coughing. Sometimes coughing is the main symptom of asthma. This occurs mostly in children. Chest tightness. As your airways constrict and mucus builds up, it becomes increasingly difficult to move air in and out of your lungs. You may feel this increasing difficulty as chest tightness. For some, it feels like someone is squeezing the chest. Anxiety can compound this feeling as you become more aware that it is harder to breathe. Chest tightness can also be a sign of a heart attack. Shortness of breath. Feeling breathless or out of breath is common in asthma. You may find that you’re breathing faster with more shallow breaths.

Symptom patterns
With asthma, symptoms often follow a familiar pattern. For example, you may notice that your symptoms:

Come mostly at night Accompany sneezing, runny nose and other allergy symptoms Get worse when you exercise Worsen when you have a cold

Factors that bring on asthma symptoms are called triggers. In addition to allergens (e.g., to pollen, dust, dander), other asthma triggers include airborne irritants like cigarette smoke and cold air.

See your doctor about your symptoms
Sometimes symptoms may be mild and other times more severe. They may go away completely between asthma attacks. But if you have only subtle symptoms and feel fine most of the time, don’t assume that you’ll never have a severe asthma attack at some point.

Signs that you may be having a severe asthma attack include:

Trouble breathing Difficulty talking or walking due to shortness of breath Severe coughing High-pitched wheezing Agitation Drowsiness or confusion

Call 9-1-1 if you are having chest pain, tightness or heaviness or any of the symptoms above.

If you notice wheezing but are not having any trouble breathing, still see your doctor right away.


Wechsler ME. Managing asthma in primary care: putting new guideline recommendations into context. Mayo Clinic Proceedings. 2009;84(8):707-717 National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Asthma signs and symptoms Accessed: 05/17/2010 American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Life quality test Accessed: 05/18/2010 Tilles SA. Psuedoasthma:when cough, dyspnea and wheezing are not asthma. The Medical Clinics of North America. 2006;90(1):61-76 National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. So you have asthma.

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