Silent Asthma: What You Need to Know
Last updated: October 2022
We had a request from our readers for more information about "silent asthma." I was not real familiar with that term, so I went to the internet to find out more information for myself. What I found was a considerable lack of reliable, credible, peer-reviewed information on this condition. And, in fact, I found the term used in a couple of different contexts.1,2
I will attempt to explain what I learned, but it appears there is not complete consensus on this term or even agreement on its use officially. I suspect it's a term used sometimes by medical professionals in an "off-the-cuff" but not in a consistent way.
What are the symptoms of silent asthma
A couple of sources referred to the "silent symptoms and signs of asthma." The most well-known symptom of asthma is wheezing, that whistling sound your breath makes, usually on exhaling. Coughing is another well-known symptom of asthma. Neither of those are silent. But there are also other standard symptoms, such as:
Those symptoms could be referred to as "silent," since they don't specifically make noise, I guess. And if those are your only symptoms, health care professionals might not take them as seriously as a chronic cough or wheezing. In fact, one of our contributors here, Theresa, reported that happening to her in her post, Not All Asthmatics Wheeze and Not All Wheezing Is Asthma.
Other so-called "silent" symptoms might include:2
- Yawning or sighing, when frequent
- Rapid, shallow breathing
- Frequent respiratory infections, including colds, that are hard to shake
- Difficulty sleeping
However, these are not true clinical symptoms of asthma. Instead, they are more likely the effects of having asthma that is not well-controlled.
What is a silent chest?
Another use of the word silent in connection with asthma that I saw mentioned a few times (but never in the credible sources I am used to using) was "silent chest." This term appears to be linked at times to a type of asthma attack called "status asthmaticus."1,2
These are the hallmark features of this type of asthma attack:2
- Airway inflammation and obstruction occurs suddenly and rapidly
- Little or no wheezing
- Breathing becomes extremely difficult and worsens with associated fatigue
- Difficult to detect at first by lay people
In short, the airways may seem to almost shut down during this type of asthma exacerbation.2 I remember when my children were in grade school, there was a playground death at their school of a student who had one of these rapid onset asthma attacks. There was little time for his teachers to figure out what was wrong, let alone to call for emergency help in time.
Ask your doctor about silent asthma
I found a number of anecdotal articles about silent asthma in my research. But it does not appear to be a term used extensively in asthma research or in the credible sources I use to support what I write here. So, while you may have been told you or your child have "silent asthma," it is not a true classification. My advice? Ask your health care professional to explain in detail what is meant by this term in reference to your health status. Find out what you need to know to stay safe and healthy.
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