As you talk to other people with asthma you will discover that asthma symptoms are different for each and every person and can change for each and every asthma event or episode. Some asthma attacks are mild and may not be very noticeable. Sometimes the asthma symptoms can be very uncomfortable and serious enough to be life threatening. It is important to understand your symptoms and personal triggers in order to control your asthma symptoms and anticipate the onset of an asthma attack. Not everyone with asthma has all the following symptoms, but usually at least one is bothersome and recurring.

Your Asthma Symptoms

Which asthma symptoms have you experienced?

  • Wheezing is the hoarse, whistling sound you hear when you breathe in or out if your airways are inflamed or obstructed. Wheezing is caused by air rushing through tight, narrowed airways. Wheezing in people who have asthma is usually more noticeable when exhaling.
  • Coughing occurs when the body tries to rid itself of an irritant In people with asthma, an increased sensitivity in the breathing passages causes them to tighten over and over as if trying to expel an irritant from your lungs, resulting in coughing. Asthma often causes a persistent cough, which may get worse at night, in the early morning, or after exercise. Sometimes coughing spasms also occur. For many people, especially children, coughing is the first symptom of asthma.
  • Shortness of breath is a feeling of not having enough air and is caused by an inability to fully empty your lungs during an asthma attack. You may feel like you need to sit down and "catch your breath" even if you are not being very active. The air trapped in your lungs keeps you from taking in as much new air as you need on your next breath. The sensation that you can't get enough air into your lungs usually feels worse when you try to inhale.
  • Chest tightness. The inflammation and tightening that asthma can cause in your airways can make you feel uncomfortable pressure in your chest. This is a discomfort you may have to learn to live with when you have asthma. However, other serious medical conditions such as angina and heart attack can also cause chest pressure and pain. So if you have this symptom, be sure to talk with your doctor right away so that he or she can rule out these more serious problems. The only way to prevent the chest pressure that is caused by asthma is to keep your asthma under control. You can do this by taking your medicine as directed and following your treatment plan.
  • Excess mucus. Mucus is a sticky substance in your throat and breathing passages that increases as airways swell. The lungs normally produce mucus to help trap dust and irritants so you can cough them out. However, when your airways are inflamed by asthma, your body reacts as if there is an irritant to get rid of and produces more mucus. You may find yourself coughing up a lot of mucus or needing to spit out mucus often in order to clear your throat.

Written by Karen Serrano, MD

Emergency Medicine resident at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Reviewed by Lisa V. Suffian, MD

Instructor of Clinical Pediatrics in the Division of Allergy and Pulmonary Medicine at Saint Louis Children's Hospital, Washington University School of Medicine

Assistant Clinical Professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital, Saint Louis University

Board certified in Allergy and Immunology

Last updated June 2008