If you have asthma

Know the Symptoms of an Asthma Attack

An asthma attack is the episode in which bands of muscle surrounding the airways are triggered to tighten. This tightening is called bronchospasm. During the attack, the lining of the airways becomes swollen or inflamed and the cells lining the airways produce more and thicker mucus than normal.

All of these factors — bronchospasm, inflammation, and mucus production — cause symptoms such as difficulty breathing, wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath, and difficulty performing normal daily activities. Other symptoms of an asthma attack include:

  • Severe wheezing when breathing both in and out
  • Coughing that won’t stop
  • Very rapid breathing
  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Tightened neck and chest muscles, called retractions
  • Difficulty talking
  • Feelings of anxiety or panic
  • Pale, sweaty face
  • Blue lips or fingernails

The severity of an asthma attack can escalate rapidly, so it’s important to treat these asthma symptoms immediately once you recognize them.

Without immediate treatment, such as with your asthma inhaler or bronchodilator, your breathing will become more labored. If you use a peak flow meter at this time, the reading will probably be less than 50%. Many asthma action plans suggestion interventions starting at 80% of normal.

As your lungs continue to tighten, you will be unable to use the peak flow meter at all. Gradually, your lungs will tighten so there is not enough air movement to produce wheezing. You need to be transported to a hospital immediately. Unfortunately, some people interpret the disappearance of wheezing as a sign of improvement and fail to get prompt emergency care.

If you do not receive adequate asthma treatment, you may eventually be unable to speak and will develop a bluish coloring around your lips. This color change, known as cyanosis, means you have less and less oxygen in your blood. Without aggressive treatment for this asthma emergency, you may lose consciousness and eventually die.

If you are experiencing an asthma attack, follow the “Red Zone” or emergency instructions in your asthma action plan immediately. These symptoms occur in life-threatening asthma attacks. You need medical attention right away.

For more detail, see WebMD’s article Asthma Attack Symptoms.

Asthma Symptoms

Asthma symptoms may be triggered by exposure to an allergen (such as ragweed, pollen, animal dander or dust mites), irritants in the air (such as smoke, chemical fumes or strong odors) or extreme weather conditions. Exercise or an illness — particularly a respiratory illness or the flu — can also make you more susceptible.

A physical display of strong emotion that affects normal breathing patterns — such as shouting, crying or laughing — can also act as an asthma trigger. Panic can prevent a person with asthma from relaxing and following instructions, which is essential during an asthma attack. Scientists have found that rapid breathing associated with strong emotions can cause bronchial tubes to constrict, possibly provoking or worsening an attack.

Asthma symptoms can appear at any time. Mild episodes may last only a few minutes and may be resolved spontaneously or with medication; more severe episodes can last from hours to days.

People with asthma, like those with any chronic condition, may experience significant stress. Because it is a leading cause of work and school absences, asthma can affect a person’s livelihood, education and emotional well-being. Depression may set in when people diagnosed with asthma believe that they are unable to participate in normal activities.

If you’re experiencing breathing difficulties that interfere with your daily activities and decrease the quality of your life, visit an asthma screening event in your area and see an allergist for diagnosis and treatment. An allergist can also help you recognize the early warning signs of an attack and coach you in ways to cope during an emergency.

Spotting symptoms of asthma in your child or baby

0:14 If you’re worried your child might have asthma, but you’re not sure whether to talk to your GP about it, this video shows the things to look out for. There are four main symptoms of asthma – coughing, wheezing, chest tightness and breathlessness.

0:34 Children get coughs all the time. So how do you tell if it could be asthma? When your child gets a cough is a good clue. Children with asthma often cough at night time, in the early morning or after exercise. Another sign is if your child has had a cough for a long time and it just won’t go away.

0:57 A wheeze is a whistling sound in your child’s chest, usually when they breathe out. Every child’s wheeze is different and they’re often hard to hear. Even your nurse or doctor might need to use a stethoscope! So, if you can’t hear a wheeze, but your child has other symptoms, I’d still recommend talking to your doctor about asthma.

1:15 Another sign of asthma is chest tightness. This one’s tricky to spot. In my experience, children with chest tightness often rub their tummy or chest. If they can talk, they might say things like, ‘I have a tummy ache’ or ‘my chest hurts’.

1:56 The final symptom to look out for is breathlessness. It’s normal for children to get a bit breathless when they’re running around and playing. So how do you tell if it’s something to worry about? Firstly, you might notice they’re breathing fast, or that they using lots of their body when they breathe – for example shrugging their shoulders up and down. When they’re playing, you might notice they get more out of breath, or stay out of breath for longer, than other children. They might get breathless even when they’re not exercising or being active. And finally, they might start avoiding exercise because they don’t like the symptoms.

2:19 As a parent, it is easy to feel that you’re worrying too much, or that you’ll be bothering your doctor. But, I would always want to know if one of my patients was getting these symptoms. The right treatment could help settle your child’s cough, wheeze, tight chest or breathlessness – so it really is worth getting them seen.

2:26 If you have more questions about asthma, you can always WhatsApp me or one of my nurse colleagues at Asthma UK.

2:35 Contact an Asthma UK nurse on WhatsApp 07378 606 728


  • Overview
  • What is asthma?
    • What is asthma?
  • Symptoms and causes
    • Early signs and symptoms of asthma
    • Childhood onset of asthma
    • Adult onset of asthma
    • Asthma triggers
    • What asthma feels like
    • Changing symptoms over time
  • Diagnosis
    • Being diagnosed with asthma
  • Treatment
    • Medication and treatment for asthma – inhalers
    • Medication and treatment for asthma – tablets and other treatments
    • Alternative and complementary therapies for asthma
    • Managing asthma – reviews and action plans
    • Managing asthma – adjusting medication and other self care strategies
    • Asthma attack and emergencies
    • Dealing with health professionals
    • Remembering to take medication for asthma
  • Living with asthma
    • Finding information about asthma
    • Emotions and coping with asthma
    • Asthma and the workplace
    • Finances and benefits
    • Exercise, diet, weight and other lifestyle issues
    • Support and support groups for asthma
    • Relationships, family and friends
  • Messages
    • Advice to others about asthma
    • Messages to health professionals
  • People’s Profiles
    • Age diagnosed: 0-10
    • Age diagnosed: 11-18
    • Age diagnosed: 19-30
    • Age diagnosed: 31-49
    • Age diagnosed: 50 plus
    • Health professionals
  • Resources and Information
  • Credits
  • When you think of asthma, what comes to mind? A child using an inhaler? What you may not know is that asthma—a disease that makes it difficult to breathe—can sometimes make its first appearance in adulthood.

    “Asthma is a chronic lung disease that makes it harder to move air into and out of your lungs,” Cheryl Thome, a registered nurse and pediatric asthma coordinator at Banner Children’s at Cardon Children’s Medical Center, said. “While asthma often first shows up in children, it can also develop later in life in adults.”

    Uncovering Signs of Asthma in Adults

    There are several asthma symptoms, according to Thome, and if you’re experiencing any of these, you may want to consider consulting a physician:

    • Irritating, persistent cough, particularly at night
    • Coughing or wheezing after physical activity
    • Coughing, wheezing or chest tightness after allergen exposure
    • Wheezing sounds during normal breathing
    • Breathing problems related to a specific seasonA cold lasting more than 10 days
    • Experiencing symptom relief when a quick relief medication, such as Albuterol, is used

    Asthma symptoms can sometimes be confused with allergy symptoms, according to Thome. So, what is the difference between asthma and allergies? “Allergies happen when the body has a hypersensitive reaction to a foreign substance, and symptoms can include a stuffy, runny or itchy nose or itchy throat – symptoms that are different from asthma,” Thome said.

    However, when a person with asthma comes into contact with things they are allergic to, it can affect their breathing more than it would someone who doesn’t have asthma—even causing an asthma attack. “If an asthmatic comes into contact with certain allergens they are sensitive to, like dust mites, furry animals, mold or pollen, it can trigger an asthma attack,” Thome said.

    Diagnosing Adult Asthma

    If you think you may have asthma, your first step is to meet with your doctor. Your physician will do a physical exam, assess your symptoms, take your medical history and possibly order a pulmonary function test. Although there is no cure for asthma, the good news is that asthma symptoms can be managed through medication. Schedule your appointment and get started.

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    Asthma in Children

    It’s very important that children with asthma receive proper treatment. An allergist can set your child on the right track for long-term control by helping you create an action plan with treatment goals for your child. With the right treatment, your child can sleep through the night, avoid missing day care or school and breathe more easily. The treatment plan should help you determine when your child’s asthma is under control, when you need to change medicines and when emergency help is needed.

    I definitely think seeing an allergist has freed Taylor up and changed her life for the better.

    Taylor’s mom

    Your child’s treatment will depend on the severity and frequency of their symptoms. To deal with childhood asthma, your allergist may prescribe two types of medicines:

    • Quick relief: Any child who has asthma needs a quick-relief medicine to treat the noisy part of the disease – coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath or an asthma attack. This medicine (typically an inhaler) should always be with your child for use at the first sign of symptoms.
    • Long-term control: This type of medicine is needed by some children to treat the quiet and dangerous part of asthma – the inflammation of the airways. This medication is taken daily to prevent asthma symptoms and attacks.

    Kids can take both medicines using an inhaler with a spacer, or a device called a holding chamber, which helps to ensure that all the medication reaches the lungs. Another option is a nebulizer – a machine that includes compressor tubing and a mask to help deliver the medication. Your allergist, nurse or pharmacist can teach you how to use both, so you can determine what works best for your child.

    Asthma medicines are very safe and effective when used as directed. Some studies have suggested that continued use of long-term control medicines can slightly slow growth in children, but it is vital to their health to treat their asthma symptoms.

    Children with asthma should also get a flu shot each fall. Even though the injected version of the vaccine contains a very small amount of egg protein, it is safe for kids who have egg allergy.

    Work with staff at your child’s school to make sure they are aware of your child’s treatment plan and that they know what to do if your child has an asthma attack. Your school may keep a supply of certain asthma medications in the nurse’s office. Involve coaches and other caretaking adults in the plan. Talk with your child about the asthma plan for school and for other places where the child spends time without you. Teach your child what to do if they have an asthma flare-up, if they find themselves around allergens or other triggers or if they forget their medicine.

    Allergies and asthma don’t have to hold your child back. Visit an allergist, start treatment and watch your child’s symptoms fade into the background. You will see your child emerge, active and living their best life!

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