In accordance with the motto of this year’s World Asthma Day, “Uncovering Asthma Misconceptions”, this is the second post of our mini-series about asthma based on our patient booklet Fast Facts for Patients and their Supporters: Asthma. Here, we focus on the most common symptoms of asthma.
You don’t need to have all these symptoms to have asthma.
Wheezing is a high-pitched sound (whistling or squeaking) caused by the turbulence of air in your narrowed airways as you breathe in and out. When it is bad, you will be able to hear the wheeze outside your chest, but during quiet phases your doctor will need a stethoscope to hear it.
Wheezing that is caused by triggers, such as viruses, allergens or irritants, is strongly suggestive of asthma, especially when it gets better with reliever medication. Wheezing due to asthma usually comes and goes, especially in younger people. Not everyone with asthma wheezes; older people with asthma are less likely to wheeze, for example. Wheezing can also be caused by other illnesses, especially in children.
The asthma cough is usually repetitive and irritating. It can be particularly persistent at night, during exercise or when laughing. However, there are many other causes of coughing. If you develop a persistent cough, do not assume that it is linked to your asthma – talk to your doctor about it.
Shortness of Breath
We all become breathless from time to time, for example after exercising or even from emotional stress, but in asthma it is due to the narrowing of the airways, which limits the amount of air moving in and out of the lungs. In addition, mucus may block your airways completely. If your asthma symptoms are bad you may even feel breathless when you are resting.
People with asthma can become breathless during gentle exercise because of persistent airway narrowing. This is different from exercise-induced asthma, which is an asthma attack due to exercise. Other physical problems, such as heart failure, can also cause breathlessness.
Breathing retraining can help to reduce long-term breathlessness. A breathing retraining method called Buteyko has been shown to reduce the need for reliever medications.
Chest tightness is not just related to the extra effort you have to make to breathe when you are short of breath – when people exercise very hard they do not get chest tightness and we know that the sensation of chest tightness is not relieved by ventilator support.
Current thinking is that the sensory pathways that give the feeling of tightness are related to the receptors involved in the narrowing of the airways.
Mucus (also known as phlegm) is essential to maintain healthy lungs. Mucus lines the airways and traps dust, irritants and infections that enter with the air. Small hairs in the airways (cilia) move the mucus up to the mouth and nose, where you clear it by swallowing, coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose. This stops potentially harmful things from entering the deeper areas of the lungs.
A normal amount of mucus is about 20–30 mL a day (a bit more than a tablespoon). Most people do not see this amount as it is slowly cleared throughout the day and night and mostly swallowed rather than coughed up.
In asthmatic airways, mucus is sometimes produced in larger-than-normal quantities. It can also vary in color and consistency. Excess mucus can be a sign of a chest infection or exposure to irritants and pollution. It can also be a symptom of an asthma attack.
When the airways become inflamed, the production of mucus is the airways’ attempt to remove the cause of the narrowing by mucus clearance. However, when the airways are narrow the mucus can block the whole airway (mucus plugging), which makes the problem worse. Mucus plugging can starve whole parts of the lung of air. This can lead to death during an asthma attack.
Narrow inflamed airways can cause other unusual symptoms.
- Frequent sighing and rapid breathing
- Difficulty sleeping
- Difficulty concentrating through the day
- Persistent tiredness
All the symptoms described above can occur in other diseases, even when the main organ affected is not the lungs (for example, heart failure). That is why it is so important to test for asthma, to make sure you get the right diagnosis and treatment.
Please check out the previous and the next post of our series here:
- May 5 Is World Asthma Day: What Is Asthma?
- Asthma: What You Need to Know about Triggers, Risk Factors, Types and Severity
Information based on Fast Facts for Patients and their Supporters: Asthma (Karger, 2020).