Symptoms of asthma

Symptoms of asthma can range from mild to more serious. Not everyone will get all of the symptoms.

When your asthma flares up, the usual symptoms are:

  • Wheezing
  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Tightness in the chest

The symptoms of asthma can range from mild to more serious. Not everyone will get all of the symptoms. Some people experience them from time to time, but otherwise live 'normal' lives doing everything they want to do with very few symptoms. Unfortunately, about five per cent of people with the condition have what is known as severe asthma, and they require specialist care and support to manage symptoms. Others have asthma symptoms all the time because they're not taking their medicines, or not taking their medicines correctly.

What causes asthma symptoms?

People with asthma have sensitive airways that are inflamed and are ready to react to triggers that 'set off' symptoms. Although asthma is complicated, there are two main ways that symptoms can be set off:

  1. If you have allergic asthma, your symptoms are caused by an allergic reaction when you come into contact with an allergen (a substance that triggers an allergic reaction). Common allergens include pollen, pets and house dust mites.
  2. If you have non-allergic asthma, your symptoms are caused by an irritant you breathe in or another factor, but are not caused by an allergic reaction. Common irritants include cigarette smoke and car exhaust fumes. Common factors that can trigger asthma symptoms include exercise, cold weather, colds and flu.

It is possible that your asthma symptoms can be caused by allergic and non-allergic triggers, which means you can have both allergic and non-allergic asthma.

What else can make asthma symptoms more likely?

As people with asthma have sensitive airways that are inflamed, anything that makes inflammation in the body worse can mean the airways are even more sensitive to triggers and irritants.

  • Asthma symptoms, especially coughing, are often worse at night, especially if the condition is not diagnosed or well managed. This is because the natural process your body uses to control inflammation (including inflammation in your airways) tends to switch off while you're asleep.
  • Some people find they are more likely to experience symptoms at particular times in life, such as childhood, menopause and pregnancy. This is because when hormone levels go up and down more than usual, these hormonal changes can affect asthma symptoms. It is not known exactly why this happens, but one theory is that hormones may directly affect the airways and/or cause the body to have a stronger inflammatory response to triggers - more research is needed before we can know for certain.
  • Anyone with asthma is likely to find smoking or being around other people smoking can trigger asthma symptoms. This is because the chemicals in tobacco smoke irritate (and potentially cause permanent damage to) the airways and the lungs.
  • There is pretty convincing evidence that being overweight can make asthma symptoms more likely. This is because being overweight may put pressure on the lungs and in some cases trigger more inflammation in the body.

If you're not treating your asthma or you're not taking your medicines as prescribed, your symptoms can get worse. This can affect your day-to-day quality of life. For instance, if you're coughing at night, you may sleep badly so you end up feeling tired, grumpy with those around you and less able to concentrate at school or work. Or if you're often breathless, you may miss out on some of the fun things in life, such as playing with your children, having trips out with your friends or enjoying romantic nights in with your partner. And most seriously of all, if your symptoms get worse, this can lead to a potentially life-threatening asthma attack.

You can manage your asthma better - and stop symptoms having a negative impact on your life - by:

  • Taking your preventer medicine as your doctor has prescribed. It's specially designed for you to take every day, even when you feel well, to help reduce your body's reaction to triggers you meet in your daily life.
  • Using a written asthma action plan to help you identify when your asthma needs extra help, what affects your asthma and what to discuss with your GP or asthma nurse.
  • Getting your asthma reviewed regularly, so you and your GP or asthma nurse can talk about your asthma in general, and your triggers. That way you can make sure you have the right medicines, that you're using them correctly and that they're doing the best possible job for you.

Managing your asthma well means you might be symptom-free

If you and your GP or asthma nurse are working together to manage your asthma it's more likely your asthma will be well managed and you'll achieve the goal of being symptom-free. If you take your medicines as prescribed and discussed with your GP or asthma nurse, and manage your triggers well, there's a good chance you can be symptom-free, or you'll only have symptoms occasionally. This will then mean you'll be able to get on with your everyday life and do all the things you enjoy!

If you have a diagnosis of severe asthma, the usual medicines may not be enough to manage your symptoms and you might need more complex treatment. Your hospital specialist will work with you to find the combination that best helps you.

Why getting a diagnosis is so important

Asthma symptoms are not something you need to put up with! Asthma is a complex condition to diagnose because symptoms can vary between individuals and on a day to day basis, and there's no definitive test. But getting a diagnosis means you can get treatment. Or ruling out the possibility that you have asthma means you can get the right treatment for whatever condition you do have.

There are so many safe and effective medicines available to treat asthma these days, and if you take them as prescribed, the condition doesn't need to stop you doing anything you want to do.

Book an appointment to see your GP straight away if you think you or your child may have asthma. You can also speak to an asthma nurse specialist on our Helpline on 0300 222 5800 (9am - 5pm; Mon - Fri).

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Last reviewed November 2015

Next review due November 2018