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People with asthma have symptoms when their airways are narrowed, swollen, or filled with mucus. Common symptoms include the following:

  • Coughing, especially at night
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness, pain, or pressure
  • Symptoms vary from person to person and from episode to episode. You may not have all of these symptoms, or you may have different symptoms at different times. A symptom may be mild during one attack and severe during another. Some people have extended symptom-free periods, interrupted by periodic asthma episodes, while others have some symptoms every day. Some people experience symptoms during exercise only or just when they are exposed to allergens or viral respiratory-tract infections.

    It is important to recognize and treat even mild asthma symptoms so as to control the condition and prevent severe episodes.

    This section also discusses:

    • Early warning signs of an asthma episode
    • When to get immediate medical help (late symptoms)
    • Symptoms of worsening asthma
    • Symptoms of exercise-induced asthma
    • Early warning signs

      Early warning signs, the changes that occur just before or at the very beginning of an asthma episode, signal that a person's asthma is worsening. In general, these signs are not severe enough to interfere with daily activities. But by recognizing the warning, you can stop an asthma episode or prevent it from getting worse. Early warning signs include the following:

      • Frequent cough, especially at night
      • Shortness of breath
      • Feeling very tired or weak when exercising
      • Wheezing or coughing after exercise
      • Fatigue and moodiness
      • Decreased or a variation in peak-flow measurements (a simple airflow measurement you can do at home)
      • Signs of a cold, upper-respiratory infection, or allergies (sneezing, runny nose, cough, congestion, sore throat, and headache)
      • Trouble sleeping
      • Late symptoms

        These symptoms occur in life-threatening asthma episodes and indicate that you need medical help right away. Late symptoms include the following:

        • Severe wheezing (when inhaling and exhaling)
        • Coughing that won't stop
        • Very rapid breathing
        • Inability to catch your breath
        • Tightened neck and chest muscles
        • Difficulty talking
        • Inability to fully exhale
        • Feelings of anxiety or panic
        • Pale, sweaty face
        • Blue lips or fingernails
        • Symptoms of worsening asthma

          If early warning symptoms are not recognized and treated, the asthma episode can progress, and you may have more difficulty performing daily activities and sleeping. Symptoms of worsening asthma include:

          • A cough that won't go away
          • Wheezing
          • Tightness in the chest
          • Shortness of breath
          • Lack of response to medications like bronchodilators
          • Symptoms of exercise-induced asthma

            Exercise-induced asthma (EIA) is asthma triggered by vigorous or prolonged physical activity. Most people with chronic asthma experience symptoms with exercise. In addition, numerous people without chronic asthma develop symptoms only during exercise.

            During normal breathing, inhaled air is first warmed and moistened by the nasal passages. During exercise, people tend to breathe through the mouth, resulting in the inhalation of colder and drier air. In exercise-induced asthma, the muscle bands around the airways are sensitive to these changes in temperature and humidity and react by contracting, or spasming. The narrowed airway leads to coughing, tightness in the chest, wheezing, unusual fatigue during exercise, and shortness of breath. Symptoms may be exacerbated by pollens and pollutants in the air and by upper-respiratory infections.

            The symptoms of exercise-induced asthma generally begin within five to 20 minutes after the start of physical activity or five to 10 minutes after brief exercise has stopped. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms with physical exertion, inform your physician, who can advise you on how to manage them. Physical activity should not be avoided because of exercise-induced asthma.

            Last reviewed on 8/26/08

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