Recognizing the Symptoms of an Asthma Attack

If coughing or gasping for breath were sure signs of asthma, we’d all be carrying inhalers. Everybody has trouble breathing from time to time, a fact that can make it hard to spot the symptoms of asthma.

Even those who have been diagnosed with the disease need to pay close attention to their bodies to recognize the warning signs of an attack. With careful monitoring, you can stop such crises before they happen. And if you should suffer a full-blown asthma attack, alertness to the symptoms will help you quickly get the treatment you need.

Your symptoms may change from one attack to another, but most people can learn to see a pattern in their disease. The first rule is to be especially alert for symptoms after you’ve come in contact with an asthma trigger such as pollen, cold air, or tobacco smoke.

Warning signs that an attack may be about to occur:

  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • Runny nose
  • Itchy throat or chin
  • Moodiness

If you notice any of the above symptoms, you may be on your way to an attack. Use a peak-flow meter to make sure your breathing hasn’t already started to decline.

Symptoms of a mild attack

Feeling out of breath while exercising or wheezing when you breathe may be warning signals of a mild asthma attack. As your airways begin to tighten, your breath may be slightly labored when you walk or exercise. Checking your peak-flow meter will show that your breathing is at or under 70 percent of normal. You may wheeze (breathing with a raspy or whistling sound) when you exhale.

Symptoms of a moderate attack

  • Shortness of breath
  • Gasping while talking
  • Tightness in chest
  • Loud wheezing and coughing

If your attack worsens, any activity other than sitting quietly will make you feel short of breath. You probably won’t have the breath to speak complete sentences. You may feel tightness in your chest, and you may wheeze loudly and cough. Your peak-flow meter will read between 40 percent and 69 percent of normal. At this point, you should take a quick-relief bronchodilator medication to open your airways and prevent a more severe attack. If symptoms persist, get medical treatment before the attack becomes severe.

Symptoms of a severe attack (call 911)

  • Not having the breath to speak
  • Flared nostrils, tight neck muscles, sitting hunched forward
  • Sleepiness and confusion
  • Bluish lips and fingernails

Make sure you and your family members already have a plan for dealing with severe attacks. At its worst, asthma can grip your airways so tightly that you’ll struggle for every breath of air. Even sitting still will leave you breathless. Your breathing may be fast and shallow, or it may be slower than normal. Breathing may become such a chore that your shoulders hunch, your nostrils flare, and your neck muscles tighten. The shortage of air can make you sleepy and confused, and your lips and fingernails may turn grayish or bluish. Your peak-flow reading will be less than half of normal.

These symptoms obviously signal an emergency. If you’re having a severe attack, take your quick-relief medication right away and get prompt medical treatment.

Further Resources

American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology

American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology

American Lung Association

Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America


National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and National Asthma Education and Prevention Program. Expert Panel Report 3: Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Asthma.

Journal of the American Medical Association: Asthma Information Center

American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology

Portnoy, Jay M M.D. The Children’s Mercy Hospital. Kansas City, Missouri.

© HealthDay

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