Asthma: Symptoms, Signs and Risk Factors

Medically Reviewed by Dr. K on 15 April 2021

Table of Contents:

  1. Signs and Symptoms
  2. Early Symptoms of Asthma
  3. Symptoms of an Asthma Attack
  4. Asthma Symptoms in Children
  5. Unusual Asthma Symptoms
  6. Infections Trigger Asthma Symptoms
  7. Asthma Risk Factors 
  8. Allergies and Asthma
  9. Atopy and Asthma
  10. Environmental Factors and Asthma
  11. Cigarette Smoke and Asthma
  12. Gender and Asthma
  13. Family History of Asthma
  14. Obesity and Asthma
  15. Pregnancy and Asthma


Signs and Symptoms

Asthma is characterised by bronchial tube inflammation and an increase in the development of sticky secretions inside the tubes. Asthmatics experience symptoms when their airways become constricted, inflamed, or clogged with mucus. Asthma signs include the following:

  • Coughing, especially at night
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness, pain, or pressure

Despite this, not everyone who has asthma experiences the same symptoms in the same way. You may not experience all of these symptoms, or you may experience them differently. Additionally, your asthma symptoms may vary between asthma attacks, ranging from mild to severe.

Certain individuals with asthma may experience extended periods without symptoms, interrupted by periodic deterioration of their symptoms known as asthma attacks. Others may experience asthma symptoms on a daily basis. Additionally, some people may develop asthma only during exercise or during viral infections such as colds.

Mild asthma attacks are more prevalent. The airways usually reopen within a few minutes to a few hours. Severe attacks are rare, but they last longer and necessitate immediate medical attention. It is crucial to acknowledge and treat even mild asthma symptoms in order to help you avoid severe episodes and maintain better control of your asthma.

Early Symptoms of Asthma

Changes that occur just before or at the start of an asthma attack are referred to as early warning signs. These symptoms may appear before those well symptoms of asthma and are the first indications that your asthma is worsening.

In general, these symptoms are not serious enough to prevent you from carrying on with your daily activities. However, by acknowledging these symptoms, you can either stop an asthma attack or prevent it from worsening. The following are early warning signs of an asthma attack:

  • Coughing a lot, particularly at night
  • Shortness of breath or quickly losing your breath
  • When you exercise, you may feel really exhausted or sluggish.
  • During exercise, wheezing or coughing
  • Feeling sleepy, irritable, grumpy, or moody
  • Lung function declines or changes as measured by a peak flow metre
  • Cold or allergy symptoms (sneezing, runny nose, cough, nasal congestion, sore throat, and headache)
  • Sleeping difficulties

If you notice any of these symptoms, adjust your medication as directed in your asthma action plan.

Symptoms of an Asthma Attack

An asthma attack is a condition in which the bands of muscle surrounding the airways contract. Bronchospasm is the medical term for this contraction. The lining of the airways becomes swollen or inflamed during an attack, and the cells lining the airways produce more and thicker mucus than usual.

Bronchospasm, inflammation, and mucus production all contribute to symptoms such as difficulty breathing, wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath, and difficulty performing normal daily activities. Additional symptoms of an asthma attack include the following:

  • Severe wheezing when inhaling or exhaling
  • Coughing that does not stop
  • Very rapid breathing
  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Tightened neck and chest muscles, called retractions
  • Difficulty talking
  • Feelings of anxiety or panic
  • Pale, sweaty face
  • Blue lips or fingernails

As this severity of an asthma attack can rapidly worsen, it's critical to treat these asthma symptoms as soon as you notice them.

Your breathing will become more strained if you do not receive immediate treatment, such as with your asthma inhaler or bronchodilator. If you use a peak flow metre at this time, the reading will almost certainly be less than 50%. Most other asthma action plans recommend starting interventions at 80% of normal..

You will be unable to use the peak flow metre as your lungs tighten further. Your lungs will gradually tighten, resulting in insufficient air movement to cause wheezing. You must be taken to the hospital right away. Unfortunately, some individuals misinterpret the absence of wheezing as a sign of improvement and fail to seek immediate medical treatment.

Without adequate asthma treatment, you may eventually lose your ability to speak and develop a bluish tint to your lips. This colour change, referred to as cyanosis, indicates that your blood is depleted of oxygen. You may lose consciousness and eventually die if you do not receive aggressive treatment for this asthma emergency..

If you are having an asthma attack, immediately follow the “Red Zone" or emergency instructions included in your asthma action plan. These symptoms occur during potentially fatal asthma attacks. You require immediate medical attention.

Asthma Symptoms in Children

Asthma affects between 10% and 12% of children in the United States and is the most common chronic illness in children. The prevalence of asthma in children is steadily increasing for unknown reasons. While asthma symptoms can begin at any age, the majority of children experience their first symptoms by the age of five.

Not all asthmatic children wheeze. Chronic coughing associated with asthma may be the only obvious sign, and if the cough is attributed to recurrent bronchitis, a child's asthma may go unnoticed.


Unusual Asthma Symptoms

Not everyone suffering from asthma exhibits the typical symptoms of coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath. Occasionally, individuals experience unusual asthma symptoms that do not appear to be related to the disease. Among the “unusual" asthma symptoms are the following:

  • rapid breathing
  • sighing
  • fatigue
  • inability to exercise properly (called exercise-induced asthma)
  • difficulty sleeping or nighttime asthma
  • anxiety
  • chronic cough without wheezing

Additionally, other conditions such as bronchitis, vocal cord dysfunction, and even heart failure can mimic asthma symptoms.

It is critical to comprehend your body. Consult your asthma doctor and other people who suffer from asthma. Bear in mind that not everyone with asthma will exhibit the same symptoms.

Infections Trigger Asthma Symptoms

At times, an asthma trigger is a virus or bacterial infection. For instance, you could be suffering from a cold virus, which is causing your asthma symptoms. Alternatively, a bacterial sinus infection may trigger your asthma. Sinusitis is a common complication of asthma.

It is essential to recognise the signs and symptoms of respiratory tract infections and to contact your healthcare professional for diagnosis and treatment as soon as possible. For instance, you may experience increased shortness of breath, difficulty in breathing, or wheezing as a result of a bronchial infection. Bronchial infections may not cause the same debilitating symptoms in people who do not have asthma. Understand your body and the warning signs that an infection is about to begin. Then, as prescribed, take the appropriate medications to eradicate the infection and reclaim control of your asthma and health.


Asthma Risk Factors 

There are reasons or risk factors that lead you to develop asthma and respiratory problems. Asthma can strike anyone regardless of risk factors, but it is less likely to occur in the absence of risk factors.

Let's take a look at some asthma risk factors and how they increase the probability that an individual will experience asthma symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath. After you've identified your personal asthma signs and symptoms, concentrate on the ones you can manage and start to make some changes in lifestyle. Avoiding risk factors over which you have control is essential in preventing asthma symptoms. Although you can't change your gender or family background, you can quit smoking if you have asthma, avoid breathing toxic air, allergens, and keeping good overall health to prevent you from becoming overweight. Control your asthma risk factors to take control of your asthma. You may be able to prevent or control your asthma by understanding all of the risk factors..

Allergies and Asthma

Asthma and allergies frequently coexist. Allergies to dust mites in the home are a predictor of who is at risk of developing asthma. A nationwide study discovered that the presence of bacterial toxins called endotoxins in household dust was directly related to the development of asthma symptoms.

Animal proteins (particularly cat and dog allergens), dust mites, cockroaches, fungi, and mould are additional sources of indoor allergens. Changes in the construction of more “energy-efficient" homes over the years are thought to have increased exposure to these asthma triggers.

Atopy and Asthma

Atopy is a term that refers to a genetic predisposition toward the development of eczema (atopic dermatitis), allergic rhinitis, allergic conjunctivitis, and asthma. Atopy leads to an increased sensitivity to common allergens, particularly those found in food and the environment.

Asthma may develop in some children who have eczema or atopic dermatitis. According to some studies, children with atopic dermatitis are more likely to develop severe and persistent asthma as adults.

Environmental Factors and Asthma

Indoor air pollution caused by cigarette smoke, mould, and noxious fumes released by household cleaners and paints can trigger allergic reactions and asthma. Pollution, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, ozone, cold temperatures, and high humidity have all been linked to the occurrence of asthma in susceptible individuals. Indeed, during periods of high air pollution, asthma symptoms and hospitalizations are significantly increased. Smog's primary destructor is ozone. It leads to coughing, shortness of breath, and even chest pain – and can increase an individual's susceptibility to infection. Another component of smog, which is sulphur dioxide may also irritate and constrict the airways, resulting in asthma attacks.

Indoor nitrogen dioxide, a common indoor pollutant, is primarily generated by gas stoves. According to studies, individuals who cook with gas are more likely to experience wheezing, breathlessness, asthma attacks, and hay fever than individuals who cook with other methods.  

Changes in the weather can also trigger asthma attacks in some people. For example, cold air constricts the airways and increases mucus production. Increases in humidity may also contribute to breathing difficulties in a subset of the population.

Cigarette Smoke and Asthma

Numerous studies confirm the link between cigarette smoking and an increased risk of developing asthma. Additionally, there is evidence that smoking cigarettes increases the risk of developing asthma in adolescents. Additional research indicates a link between secondhand smoke exposure and the development of asthma in childhood.

Gender and Asthma

Boys are more likely to develop asthma as children than girls. It's unclear why this happens, but some researchers believe that a young male's airway is smaller than a female's, which may lead to a higher risk of wheezing after a cold or other viral infection. Men and women have the same asthma rate about the age of 20. Adult asthma affects more women than men by the age of 40.

Family History of Asthma

Your asthma may be passed on from either parents, or both. Asthma is predisposed to you due to your inherited genetic makeup. In addition, three-fifths of all asthma cases are thought to be inherited. A CDC report indicates that when someone has parents with asthma, the risk of developing asthma is between 3 and 6 times higher than someone who doesn't have parents with asthma.

Obesity and Asthma

According to some studies, asthma is more prevalent in obese adults and children. Overweight asthmatics appear to have more uncontrolled asthma and require more days on asthma medication.

Pregnancy and Asthma

Infants whose mothers smoked during pregnancy tended to have poorer lung function than those whose mothers did not smoke. Premature birth is also associated with an increased risk of developing asthma.


Referenced on 11/4/2021

  1. American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology: “An Unwelcome Return: 10 tips to ease your spring allergy symptoms" and “Tips to Remember: Childhood Asthma."
  2. Smolley, L. Breathe Right Now, Norton, 1999.
  3. Porsbjerg, C. Chest, 2006.
  4. Kirkpatrick, G.L. Prim Care 1996.
  5. Weiss, S.T. Bronchial Asthma Mechanisms and Therapeutics, 3rd ed., Little Brown, 1993.
  6. Litonjua, A.A. Am J Clin Nutr 2006.
  7. Beuther, D. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, April 1, 2007.
  8. WebMD Medical News: “Toxins in Dust Raise Incidence of Asthma." 
  9. CDC: “Asthma: Risk Factors."
  10. American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology: “Atopy."

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