Symptoms of Asthma

Asthma affects everyone differently and the range and severity of symptoms varies from person to person. Find out more about the common and uncommon symptoms of asthma.

What are the common symptoms of asthma?

The most common symptoms of asthma are:

Not all asthma suffers will suffer all of the above symptoms. It is important to be aware that people who develop the above symptoms donít necessarily have asthma. There are a number of other conditions such as reflux disease, chronic sinusitis and vocal cord dysfunction that can mimic the symptoms of asthma.

What are the less common symptoms of asthma?

Other symptoms that may be reported by asthma sufferers include:

Asthma Attacks

Those who have asthma may experience asthma attacks, with the symptoms developing at a varying rate. Some asthma attacks develop quickly within minutes, while others develop at a slower rate over a time frame of hours or even days.

What happens during an asthma attack?

The airways of people who have asthma are always inflamed and sensitive. An asthma attack results in narrowing of the airways that reduces the flow of air into and out of the lungs.

Symptoms of an asthma attack

During an attack, a number of changes occur within the airways.

  • Increased Mucus: The cells lining the airways produce more mucus when inflammation or irritation increases. The thick mucus can hinder the flow of air to and from the lungs.
  • Inflammation and Swelling: Irritation of the airways causes them to swell which also restricts airflow.
  • Muscle Tightening: Muscles in the airways tighten in response to the irritation, which makes the airways smaller and less air is able to flow to and from the lungs.

These symptoms that narrow the airways can develop in a matter of minutes or may take hours or days. The symptoms themselves can range from mild to severe.

What are the types of asthma attack?

An asthma attack is commonly categorized into one of three categories:

  1. Mild asthma attack
  2. Moderate asthma attack
  3. Severe asthma attack

Mild asthma attack

Some asthma attacks may have only mild symptoms.

Symptoms of a mild asthma attack:

The symptoms of a mild asthma attack may include one or more of the following:

Moderate asthma attack

Some asthma attacks include more moderate symptoms.

Symptoms of a moderate asthma attack:

  • Persistent, continual coughing
  • Increased wheezing
  • Noticeable breathing difficulty
  • Can only manage to speak a few words between breaths

Severe asthma attack

Some asthma attacks include more severe symptoms.

Symptoms of a severe asthma attack:

  • Severe breathing difficulty
  • Wheeze tends to quieten
  • Increasing distress and anxiety
  • Pale
  • Sweaty
  • Unable to say more than a few words at a time
  • Throat and rib muscles suck in when breathing
  • Lips may be blue
  • Fingernails may be blue
  • Restlessness in young children
  • Difficulty eating or drinking
  • Vomiting may occur in young children

Asthma attack triggers

An asthma trigger is something that results in the development of asthma symptoms by causing the airways to narrow. Asthma triggers vary from person to person.

Most patients with well-controlled asthma do not develop symptoms even when exposed to known triggers. Research shows that the best way to improve asthma and reduce the risk of an attack is to treat the underlying airway inflammation by using medication. Treatment reduces the chance that exposure to triggers will produce symptoms.

Avoiding asthma triggers is not essential but may be useful for people who have to take high doses of medication to keep their symptoms under control or who suffer problematic asthma symptoms despite treatment. As a general rule, all asthma sufferers should avoid exposure to general airway irritants such as cigarette smoke and heavy air pollution.

Potential asthma triggers include:

Many asthma sufferers also have allergies that can trigger asthma symptoms. Consultation with an allergist can uncover if any allergies may be triggering your asthma.

  • Bushfires

People with asthma can be more sensitive to the effects of breathing in smoke from bushfires. Smoke from bushfires contains tiny particles that can enter the lungs and irritate the airways, leading to asthma symptoms.

Viruses that cause colds and flu act by infecting the respiratory tract and causing inflammation. Cold and flu viruses can be more serious for people with asthma as their airways are swollen and sensitive and the virus can cause further inflammation. If you do develop a cold or flu it is important to be diligent in following your asthma management plan and if symptoms get worse, go see your doctor, as a short course of oral corticosteroids may be required to manage worsening asthma symptoms.

Dust mites are small invisible insects found in many areas of a home. They thrive in damp, humid conditions, making bedding an ideal environment for them. Dust mite allergy is often associated with asthma though it is the dust mite droppings rather than the dust mites themselves that cause the allergy. It is impossible to totally eradicate dust mites from a home though measures such as regular vacuuming, frequent washing of bedding and soft furnishings and the use of dust mite covers on bedding may help reduce the quantity of this allergen. As it is virtually impossible to avoid dust mites, it is important to ensure you have good control of your asthma symptoms.

  • Hormones

Studies show that hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy, menstruation and menopause may exacerbate asthma symptoms. Furthermore, medications (Nurofen and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatories) used to control menstrual pain can also exacerbate asthma symptoms, so it may be advisable to use paracetamol. Keeping a diary can help you determine whether your monthly hormonal changes are flaring up your asthma symptoms. If so, talk to your doctor about adjusting your medication during these times. Pregnancy can cause asthma symptoms to worsen in some women or improve in others.

  • Mould

Mould tends to grow in damp places and produces millions of spores that are dispersed into the air and can easily be inhaled. These spores can trigger an asthma attack in some people. If your asthma is exacerbated by mould, it may be a good idea to take some measures to limit your exposure. For example, keep your living areas well ventilated and regularly clean your bathroom.

Pollen tends to be present in the air in greater numbers during particular times of the year. It is important to ensure you have your asthma well controlled during these times of the year. It may be necessary for some people to take additional measures to minimise exposure when pollen levels are particularly high. These measures include:

  • staying indoors, on windy days or during thunderstorms
  • avoiding activities such as mowing the lawn
  • showering after outdoor activities
  • using recirculated air in the car
  • removing any plants in your garden which are producing significant amounts of pollen which trigger your symptoms.
  • Air pollution

Air pollution refers to excessive fumes, odour, dust or gas in the air that can irritate the airways and make your asthma symptoms worse. If you have your asthma well under control, you may not react to increased levels of air pollution. If you do find your symptoms difficult to control when air pollution is high, you may need to talk to your doctor to adjust your medication or you may take simple measures to minimise your exposure to the pollution. These measures include:

  • stay indoors on particularly smoggy, smoky or dusty days
  • avoid outdoor physical activities when air pollution levels are high
  • use your air condition to filter the air that enters into your house
  • avoid indoor air pollution such as caused by tobacco smoke.
  • Aerosol sprays

Aerosol sprays (deodorants, body sprays, cleaning sprays) produce a fine mist that contains chemicals and strong smells. The inhalation of these mists can trigger asthma symptoms. As spray mists can travel quite a distance if there is a breeze, or linger in the air in a confined space an asthma attack can be triggered even if the spray is used quite some distance away. It is a good idea to avoid using sprays in a poorly ventilated space and to avoid using them near other people who may themselves have asthma.

  • Chemicals

The sensitive airways of asthmatics may readily react to exposure to chemicals so it is important to keep your asthma well under control. Exposure to chemicals can come from many sources such as power stations, smelters, cleaning agents, paints, glues, sealants and motor vehicle exhaust.

  • Smoking

Asthma sufferers should be diligent in avoiding exposure to tobacco smoke. Tobacco smoke damages and irritates the lungs and makes asthma symptoms more difficult to manage.

  • Animals/pets

Pets such as cats and dogs are a relatively common trigger of asthma but other animals such as horses, mice and birds may also be problematic. It is a good idea to talk to your doctor about allergy tests if you feel you may have an allergy to a pet. An asthmatic reaction to an animal may occur within minutes or even many hours after the exposure.

  • Exercise

In some people, physical exercise can trigger an asthma attack - this is referred to as exercise-induced asthma. This does not mean that you canít exercise, it just means that you need to have your asthma under control and a management plan in cause your symptoms become worse. Many athletes are able to exercise at an elite level as long as they have their asthma under control.

  • Medications

Medications are capable of triggering an asthma attack as well as making your asthma difficult to control. Certain medications are more likely to affect your asthma:

Always check with your doctor before starting or stopping a medication.

  • Food and food preservatives

Foods and preservatives found in them can readily trigger asthma. Food allergies are quite common and the reaction to the food can involve asthmatic symptoms. Foods commonly associated with allergic reactions are:

Food preservatives, particularly sulphites are frequently used in the preparation or processing of food and sensitive individuals may readily react to these.

A stressful event such as a fight, excitement, fear or stress can trigger the onset of asthma symptoms. Children in particular are susceptible to this. By being aware of how your emotions affect your asthma, you can take measures to minimise their effect.

  • Exposure to cold dry air or weather changes

Inhaling cold, dry air causes the airways to constrict that can trigger asthma symptoms. As a result, if you are aware that you will be in a cold environment, it is a good idea to speak to your doctor and adjust your medication plan.

Who gets asthma?

Asthma can occur in any age group but is particularly prominent in children with asthma being the most common chronic disease among children. It is estimated by WHO that 300 million people suffer from asthma around the world.

Asthma can occur at any age but often tends to develop during childhood.

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Note: This site is for informational purposes only and is not medical advice. See your doctor or other qualified medical professional for all your medical needs.