An elephant sitting on a man's back as he struggles to breathe

How Does It Really Feel?

Last updated: August 2022

People with asthma are probably familiar with the question, "What are your symptoms?" I usually retort off the general names: shortness of breath, chest tightness, coughing, etc. Though these are the medically favored terms, I do not think they often describe very well how we really feel. How do these symptoms feel, and how would I detail them to someone who has not experienced my beloved asthma trifecta?

How do asthma symptoms really feel?

Shortness of breath

What even does "shortness of breath" mean? What about "long-ness of breath"? I think this sensation can be described a bit better as "air hungry." As in you are starving for air, but nothing quenches that insatiable appetite because it is not easy and breathing is not effective. It sometimes feels as if I am smothering in open air, and no matter how hard I try to slow my breathing or take a deep breath, I just cannot get enough.

"Can't catch your breath" doesn't even begin to cover the feeling, but it does help a bit. When I am really "short" of breath, it seems like my breathing is moving along without me, not ever giving me the chance to catch up.

Another good way to imagine shortness of breath is like breathing through a straw. Breathing in through the drink accessory does not afford much air, and breathing out does not allow much space for exhalation. The cycle repeats itself, and just as you cannot get enough air in, you also cannot get enough air out. I don't think "shortness of breath" is the best way to describe this petrifying sensation.

Chest tightness

I have so many metaphors I could use to describe this symptom, which happens to be my least favorite. I believe I told my doctor recently that my chest tightness felt like three elephants were not just sitting on my chest, but doing jumping jacks. It may sound funny, but it sure does not feel like a laughing matter.

Another way to imagine chest tightness is that you are getting a really tight hug from someone (boa constrictor anyone?) and you cannot seem to get out of the embrace. The hug gets tighter and tighter, knocking all the air out of you and preventing you from getting any more back in. I find chest tightness makes my exhales more difficult, the trapped air much like the trapped feeling from a persistent, squeezing embrace.

Cough

This was actually the first symptom I had that prompted me to seek out a diagnosis, but since then has thankfully become much more managed with my extensive treatment regimen. There are so many different types of coughs it is hard to sniff out what exactly is the best description, but my cough has been lovingly described as a "harp seal." Look that up on YouTube and you'll get a pretty good idea of how I sound. Though coughing may be a symptom of something more, I describe the feeling of needing to cough as having stuff in your lungs that really needs to get out, and it will make you miserable either if it stays put or if it forces its way out. The cough can trigger shortness of breath, which tightens my chest, and starts a whole cycle over again. Here is where all my metaphors meet.

Why it can be important to describe symptoms this way

Though some of these depictions may be more comical than scientific, I find they help others understand what exactly I am going through. "Chest tightness" may be more informed, but describing this symptom as what it might feel like if a boa constrictor latched onto your lungs may just be what an outsider needs to hear to actually get a clearer picture. Telling my friends my oxygen concentrator is loud was not quite as effective as painting the image of a congested rhino trying to use nose spray. People who are fortunate enough to not have asthma may not get the medical terminology, but they often get it when we break it down further. When in doubt, metaphor it out.

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