Affecting over 25 million Americans, including 5 million children, asthma is experienced in different ways by different people. For some, this condition is mild and can be easily managed with very little medication. Others experience severe attacks that are life-threatening. This is why it is important to understand the symptoms, from early signs to symptoms that require immediate medical attention.
In order to better understand the symptoms, let’s have a quick review of what happens in the lungs and the bronchial tubes. The bronchial tubes are the air passages(tubes) found at the bottom of the windpipe that connects to each lung. In asthma, these tubes are inflamed and there is increased sticky mucus inside them. Asthma symptoms occur when the airway tightens, becomes more inflamed, and is filled with mucus.
What Are Some Early Signs Of Asthma?
Early warning signs of an asthma attack develop right before or at the beginning of the attack. Generally speaking, these warning signs are mild or moderate and won’t stop you from day-to-day activities. However, it’s important to recognize them to try to prevent getting worse. You may need to adjust your medication and follow the doctor’s instructions recommended in your asthma action plan.
Frequent coughs, particularly at night along with shortness of breath, feeling tired for no reason, moody, or irritable could also be early warning signs. Pay attention if you feel more fatigued than usual if you wheeze or cough after exercising. Early signs of an asthma attack may also include trouble sleeping, sneezing, runny nose, sore throat, nasal congestion, headaches, or other signs of cold or allergies. Notice any changes in the lung function when using the peak flow meter.
Some may have asthma attacks once in a while, some may have symptoms of certain types- for example during exercise or triggered by a cold or flu, while others may have symptoms all the time. The typical symptoms of asthma include chest pain or tightness, difficulty breathing, and wheezing, especially when exhaling. Less known or unusual symptoms of asthma include rapid breathing, fatigue, cough without wheezing, anxiety, sleeping problems, inability to work out (this is a special form called exercise-induced asthma).
Asthma Attack Symptoms
There are three main changes in the respiratory tract that lead to an asthma attack. Firstly, the muscles surrounding the air passages tighten, and this process is medically known as bronchoconstriction. This means that less air than usual enters the lungs. Secondly, the excess production of the mucus clogs the air passages. Thirdly, there is an abnormal immune response that causes inflammation of the air passages.
These changes lead to the main symptoms experienced during the acute attack: significant wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath. Acute attacks can vary in intensity and duration, the most common attacks are mild and the airways open up within minutes to hours.
During acute attacks, wheezing is severe and occurs during both breathing in and out. The cough is persistent. Chest pain, tightened neck and chest muscles, may accompany shortness of breath. The breathing may become more rapid than usual. During an asthma attack, a person often has difficulty talking, feels anxious, is sweating, with a pale face and blue lips or fingernails. The peak flow meter reading could be less than 50% at this time. Asthma action plans usually recommend interventions when the peak flow meter is 80% of the normal, as the condition quickly deteriorates.
Your doctor will instruct you when to seek emergency treatment- for example, if you experience rapid worsening of the wheezing or difficulty of breath; if there is no improvement in symptoms after using the inhaler (quick-relief inhaler) or difficulty breathing with minimal activity. These are all signs that emergency care is needed.
When Do You Need To See Your Doctor?
Consult a doctor if you suspect you have asthma, but the diagnosis was never confirmed. If you experience frequent coughing and wheezing that lasts a few days or more, or other symptoms of asthma, it is wise to contact a doctor. If you have already received the diagnosis of asthma it is important to have regular follow-ups to monitor your condition and make sure the symptoms are under control. As the symptoms change over time, the treatment may also need adjustments.
Contact your doctor right away if your symptoms are getting worse or if the medication does not improve your symptoms.
There are well-known triggers like cold air, viral infections, allergens, stress, exercise, certain medications, and food additives. However, asthma can be unpredictable at times and symptoms may occur without any apparent reason or exposure to a trigger. It is important to learn as much as possible about asthma in general, and your symptoms in particular. Keep a journal and record your symptoms, along with the foods you ate, the number of hours you sleep, the stress levels on a scale from 0-10, and any changes in your life (travel, new medication, a new workout).