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Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: June 2023

Symptoms of asthma can start at any age. They vary for every person and can change over time. The most common symptoms of asthma are coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness. An asthma attack is when any of these symptoms suddenly get worse.1

Asthma symptoms are similar to symptoms of other lung conditions. Your doctor will use symptoms and tests to diagnose asthma. Talk to your doctor about any symptoms you have.2

What are the most common symptoms of asthma?

The most common symptoms of asthma are:1,3

People with asthma can have 1, some, or all of these symptoms. Symptoms can be mild, moderate, or severe. Some people have symptoms at certain times. Other people have symptoms most of the time.2,3

Symptoms of asthma are similar to symptoms of other chronic (ongoing) lung conditions. The pattern of symptoms helps distinguish asthma. Some things that suggest a person is experiencing asthma are:1,2

  • Worse symptoms at night or early in the morning
  • Symptoms varying over time and in intensity
  • Symptoms triggered or worsened by infections
  • Symptoms triggered by exercise, laughter, allergens, or irritants
  • Family history of asthma and allergies

In contrast, other lung conditions are more likely to be the problem when someone has:2

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  • Coughing without any other symptoms
  • Chronic production of mucus
  • Shortness of breath with dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Sharp chest pain
  • Symptoms starting after age 50
  • History of cigarette smoking

How are symptoms used to diagnose asthma?

Your doctor will ask you about your symptom history and family health history. This will help the doctor figure out if your symptoms are typical of asthma. But symptoms cannot be used alone to diagnose asthma.2

If your symptoms are typical of asthma, your doctor will perform certain tests. These include lung function tests, such as spirometry, peak flow, and the asthma control test (ACT). These asthma tests will assess how much air you can breathe and how your lungs are working. This information can confirm an asthma diagnosis.2

What causes asthma symptoms?

Asthma causes inflammation of your airways. This leads to swelling inside the airways. It also causes muscles around your airways to tighten. This makes your airways smaller, which makes it harder for air to move through the airways. This leads to symptoms of asthma.3

Airway inflammation also makes your airways more sensitive. This is why symptoms happen after exposure to certain triggers. Common triggers of symptoms include:1,3

  • Exercise
  • Allergens, such as dust, mold, pet dander, cockroaches, and pollen
  • Cold air or other weather changes
  • Irritants, such as cigarette smoke and pollution
  • Viral infections
  • Work-related exposures

How are asthma symptoms prevented and treated?

Controlling symptoms is an important part of asthma treatment. Well-controlled asthma means you:2,4

  • Have symptoms less than 2 times per week
  • Take quick-relief drugs less than 2 times per week
  • Do not wake up from asthma symptoms
  • Do not have to limit your activities because of asthma

When symptoms are well-controlled, you have a lower risk of asthma attacks. Controlling symptoms can also help decrease how often asthma limits your daily life. The best ways to control symptoms are to:4

  • Avoid triggers
  • Take the medicine your doctor suggests

Even if you do not have symptoms, your airways may still be inflamed. Taking asthma control drugs can reduce inflammation and make your airways less sensitive. And taking these drugs when you do not have symptoms can also lower your risk of asthma attacks.2,4

The right treatment is different for everyone. Treatments may change over time, depending on how your symptoms change. Your asthma action plan will help you manage your symptoms.4

What are symptoms of an asthma attack?

Asthma attacks are episodes where symptoms get suddenly worse. Symptoms of an asthma attack vary for every person. Common symptoms of an asthma attack include:5

  • Severe shortness of breath, chest tightness, coughing, or wheezing
  • Low peak flow readings
  • Symptoms triggered by certain exposures

Your asthma action plan will help you identify signs of an asthma attack. It will also tell you what to do when one happens. Some asthma attacks can be managed at home. Others may need medical attention. Frequent asthma attacks may mean your asthma is not well-controlled.5

What are some unusual symptoms of asthma?

People with asthma may have other, unusual symptoms. These are often caused by conditions that often coexist with asthma. For example, people with asthma may also have allergies or anxiety. Some unusual symptoms of asthma include:1,2

  • Rapid breathing (hyperventilation)
  • Deep sighing
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Fatigue
  • Itchy face and throat
  • Sneezing and runny nose
  • Congestion

Unusual asthma symptoms may also be caused by completely separate conditions. Talk to your doctor about any symptoms you have. Your doctor can help determine causes and treatments for your symptoms. 1,2