tiny people tickling the inside of airways with feathers

Itchy Lung: What’s The Deal?

Sometimes it feels like I have itchy lungs. This doesn’t happen with all asthma attacks. It’s sort of a “sometimes” symptoms. I like to refer to it as an unusual asthma symptoms. So, what’s the deal with this itchy lung feeling anyway?

So, what does it feel like?

For the longest time, I didn’t know how to explain it. Then, one day, as I was having an asthma attack, an idea popped into my head. This is where it comes in handy to have an active imagination.

So, here’s the idea that popped into my head. The tickling feeling feels like microscopic people made their way inside your lungs. And each of these people is holding feathers. And they are using those feathers to tickle your airways.

This is how I explained it to myself when I was a kid.

When did I experience this “tickling” feeling?

Not always. It was not a symptom of all asthma attacks. Initially, the only time I experienced it was when I forgot to take my theophylline. You see, I was chronically dependent on theophylline for over 30 years.

And theophylline is in the same family of medicine as caffeine. So, you know what happens when you drink coffee every day and then you forget for a couple of days: you go through a withdrawal period. Well, when I forgot to take my theophylline a couple days a withdrawal symptom was that itchy feeling.

At first, I didn’t understand it. Often I’d ignore it. I did not know it was an early warning symptom of asthma. And, when I ignored it, a severe asthma attack would result. My chest would itch like crazy. I could feel the phlegm in my airways. It was a type II asthma attack.

Eventually, I learned that forgetting to take my theophylline caused these symptoms. I learned when I felt it to take my medicine. And it was because of this that I figured I’d never been able to get off theophylline.

But, eventually, I did get off theophylline, thanks to combination medicine like Advair, Symbicort, Dulera, and Breo. After starting those medicines, I was gradually able to wean myself off theophylline.

When do I feel that “itchy lung” today?

Thanks to improved asthma control, not as often. And when I do feel it, it’s not as severe as it was, say, 20 years ago.

Today, I appropriately recognize it as an early warning symptom of asthma. And when I get it, it’s usually when exposed to lots of dust mites. And that’s where I came up with the dust mite metaphor as noted above.

So, what really causes itchy lungs?

There’s no way to know for certain. But, there are some theories.

  1. Bronchospasm Theory. What happens during asthma attacks? Bronchial smooth muscles wrapped around airways twitch and spasm. They constrict and squeeze airways. This is what causes shortness of breath.  Is it possible that when this happens it causes that tickling feeling? Some may describe it as chest tightness or pressure. But for some of us it feels tickly or itchy.
  2. Hypersecretion Theory. We asthmatics also have lots of mucus glands and goblet cells. When exposed to asthma triggers they secrete lots of mucus. This mucus may obstruct airways to cause shortness of breath. Is it possible that it may also act to create that ticklish feeling?

These are just my theories.

What to make of this?

Thankfully, today my asthma is well controlled. Still, I feel this itchy sensation when exposed to some of my asthma triggers. It’s usually one of my earliest symptoms. So, when I experience it, I know something’s up. I remove myself from whatever I’m up to. For instance, if I’m cleaning I quit cleaning.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Asthma.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.
View References
  1. Orr, A.W., “Prodroal itching in asthma,” Journal Of The Royal College Of General Practitioners, 1979, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2159052/pdf/jroyalcgprac00125-0033.pdf, accessed 1/17/18
  2. “Prodrome,” Dictionary.com, https://www.dictionary.com/browse/prodromal, accessed 1/17/18
  3. “Asthma Itch,” Clinical Advisor, https://www.clinicaladvisor.com/advisor-forum/asthmatic-itch/article/117885/, accessed 1/17/19

Comments

View Comments (8)
  • emusing
    6 days ago

    I am so glad this is a thing other people have experienced. I once told my (retired) asthma doc that I felt like my lungs were ‘tickly’ and he said that wasn’t a clinical term he was aware of. But that sensation was always an ‘uh-oh’ for me, and always led to a flare up.

  • Leon Lebowitz, RRT moderator
    5 days ago

    Hi again, emusing and thanks for this post. So many asthmatics know themselves and their condition in a way that many doctors are not very familiar with. I thought you might find it helpful and interesting to look over this material on unusual symptoms of asthma: https://asthma.net/living/unusual-asthma-symptoms/. It may provide you with some additional insight. Leon (site moderator)

  • Mahod
    6 days ago

    Thank you for addressing itchy lung!! Dust or mold are sure triggers. I tend to mask when potential contact is there.
    I was shredding a bunch of paper. Geesh!! Itchy lung and near full flare. Used my rescue inhaler asap. Masked next time.

    It is especially long lasting and annoying with bronchial infections. Feel like I want to take a bottle brush and get inside!!

    Meds, and moving to flare plan during infection has kept me out of ER and hospital for pneumonia a full year!!! Very happy about this progress

    When I’ve described this to pulmonologist, who is amazing, he said no one ever quite describes things like you. Also begged me not to use bottle brush.LOL

  • John Bottrell, RRT moderator author
    6 days ago

    You are welcome. Glad to hear you have an excellent doctor who likes the way you describe things. I like the way you describe using a bottle brush to scratch your itchy lungs. That’s pretty neat. I guess our “bottle brush” is particles of albuterol. John. Author/ Site Moderator.

  • emmejm
    6 days ago

    I get itchy lungs around dust mites and pollen. Animal dander does not give me itchy lungs, but can still cause asthma issues for me. I’ve always envisioned it as all the dust or pollen scratching up against everything because it’s gotten trapped in the excess mucus I produce during an attack.

  • John Bottrell, RRT moderator author
    6 days ago

    That’s another neat way of describing it. Thanks for sharing. John. Site Moderator.

  • Shellzoo
    2 weeks ago

    I get itchy lungs too. I get it when exposed to large amounts of allergens. This is my signal that I need my allergy medicine, a Zantac and to use my rescue inhaler otherwise my lungs will get tight and I will wheeze. Usually large amounts of animal dander are the culprit. I am grateful for the signal that I need help but, once my airway and lungs itch, things get bad really fast if I don’t take immediate action.

  • Leon Lebowitz, RRT moderator
    2 weeks ago

    Hi Shellzoo and thanks for your post in response to John’s article. It’s a very good thing that you can actually recognize this early symptom in yourself. Early recognition can result in early intervention and hopefully, avoiding the attack. Keep up the good work! Leon (site moderator)

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