Silent Asthma: What You Need to Know.

Silent Asthma: What You Need to Know

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.

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 consistent way.

Silent Symptoms of 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:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness

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 Cannizzaro, 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:

  • Yawning or sighing, when frequent
  • Rapid, shallow breathing
  • Frequent respiratory infections, including colds, that are hard to shake
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Fatigue

However, these are not true clinical symptoms of asthma. Instead, they are more likely the effects of having asthma that is not well-controlled.

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.”

These are the hallmark features of this type of asthma attack:

  • 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
  • Life-threatening

In short, the airways may seem to almost shut down during this type of asthma exacerbation. 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.

In Summary

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.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


View Comments (8)
  • janetg
    3 months ago

    Very interesting — about 2 years ago— well almost exactly 2 years ago, I was getting ready to leave on a cruise & went to a normally scheduled dr’s appointment. I had been feeling really tired but figured I could make it to the ship and the I’d feel better. (silly me). Turned out, I was breathing at less than 40% lung capacity: I had no idea!! Of course, the cruise was out (thank goodness for travel insurance). That’s how I found out I had asthma. Never heard it called silent asthma. Of course since then I’ve developed all the coughing etc symptoms.

  • Leon Lebowitz, RRT moderator
    3 months ago

    Hi janetg and thanks for your post and sharing your initial diagnosis from two years ago. Looks like you may have dodged the proverbial bullet back then. Did you ever get to plan another cruise for yourself? Wishing you well, Leon (site moderator)

  • Dragonmom603
    4 months ago

    My daughter was diagnosed with silent asthma at age 18months. She is 15 yrs now. I can always catch an attack sometimes before she can as her face will take on a grey tint and she will start getting lethargic.

  • Leon Lebowitz, RRT moderator
    4 months ago

    Hi Dragonmom603 and thanks for your post. You certainly have become an expert at assessing your daughter’s condition. She is fortunate to have such a devoted and compassionate mom as you. Keep up the good work! Leon (site moderator)

  • orangeblossom
    7 months ago

    It is hard to get help with “silent asthma”. I first noticed this phrase in an article on an olympic runner. I had recently been to a respiratory specialist and was in a full overload of symptoms for me. My chest hurt. It hurt to breath. It hurt to touch my chest! But I did not wheeze. The “specialist” claimed I could not have asthma. I have since learned my own body. I need an inhaler or a nebulizer when I am like this. Then it loosens and I wheeze and I cough until I begin to cough up mucous and feel better. That was the day my disenchantment with our local specialists began. It has not improved.

  • lauren.tucker moderator
    7 months ago

    Sorry to hear your asthma hasn’t improved. Are you able to look for another specialist? While everyone’s asthma is different, you may want to consult with another doctor. Additionally, the community may chime in with some support and information. We know it’s frustrating and we are here for you. Keep us posted and let us know how we can help. Best, Lauren ( Team)

  • Shellzoo
    7 months ago

    “Other so-called “silent” symptoms might include:

    Yawning or sighing, when frequent
    Rapid, shallow breathing
    Frequent respiratory infections, including colds, that are hard to shake
    Difficulty sleeping

    That describes me so well. My Dr suspects I have had asthma for a long time and I know that I have had all these symptoms for years. I don’t wheeze very often but coughing and these symptoms I have pretty much daily. Thanks for an informative article!

  • Leon Lebowitz, RRT moderator
    7 months ago

    Hi again, Shellzoo – it’s good to hear this article resonated so well with you. It’s always gratifying for our ‘asthma team’ to hear about our membership finding value in the material we publish. Warmly, Leon (site moderator)

  • Poll