Asthma is an inflammatory lung condition that causes the airways to narrow. Symptoms include shortness of breath, wheezing and coughing.
Asthma can come on suddenly. Although the majority of cases (95%) begin in childhood, around 12 in 1,000 adults develop asthma despite never having had any respiratory issues as children. It’s called adult-onset asthma.
Asthma can be life-threatening so it’s important to understand the signs and symptoms.
Order safe and effective inhalers for asthma View all treatments
Signs of asthma as an adult
The earliest signs of adult-onset asthma will vary depending on underlying causes, but can include:
- Difficulty breathing
- A tight feeling in the chest
- Coughing (whilst laughing or at night)
- Breathing issues that disrupt sleep
Initially, these asthma symptoms may be sporadic, but they can become more frequent over time. Many of these asthma signs can, of course, be manifestations of other conditions such as the flu, bronchitis or obesity.
But if symptoms become worse or respond to known triggers such as pet dander, smoke and allergic triggers, it’s important to seek help from a healthcare professional. Early intervention with inhaled corticosteroids has been shown to reduce the severity of adult-onset asthma.
Asthma symptoms and signs of an asthma attack can also be made worse when you get a cold or flu.
Signs of an asthma attack
An attack happens when signs of asthma come on rapidly and worsen. Asthma attacks usually occur because the muscles in the airways tighten and restrict airflow.
Common symptoms of an asthma attack are:
- Severe wheezing
- Rapid breathing
- Uncontrollable coughing
- Chest tightening
- Difficulty talking
- Anxiety and panic attack
- Sweaty and pale skin
If you’re already managing your asthma at home, but these symptoms don’t respond to inhaler treatment, call for emergency medical care immediately.
Mild asthma attacks are more common and following treatment, airway tightening will usually relax within a few minutes.
Patients should also monitor these signs of a developing asthma attack:
- Trouble sleeping
- Coughing or wheezing after physical activity
- Allergic symptoms
- Cold or flu symptoms
Unusual asthma symptoms
Asthma has many different symptoms and not everyone will experience all of them. Less common ones include:
- Rapid breathing
- Sleep disturbances
- Problems concentrating
- Feeling tired or fatigued
- Itching chin
You may want to monitor these symptoms if you have a child with asthma as they could be warning signs of an oncoming asthma attack.
Signs of asthma in kids
The majority of patients will notice the first symptoms of asthma in childhood. Prevalence of the disease is much higher during the early life years, with an estimated 1 in 12 (or 6 million) children in the U.S. having asthma.
The most important symptom of childhood asthma is wheezing, especially at normal room temperature. Studies have shown that the early stages of asthma are marked by recurrent episodes of wheezing during childhood.
Other symptoms of childhood asthma include chronic coughing and trouble breathing. Some symptoms may initially be misdiagnosed for a respiratory infection, but if they recur, they could be a sign of developing childhood asthma. The frequency of asthma episodes, however, may be relatively low with 75% of children having a second attack within 3 years of their initial diagnosis.
Parents should also monitor if their kids’ symptoms are made worse by common asthma triggers such as viral infections, smoke or pet dander. It is now fairly well established that asthma in very young children (0 to 3 years) can be triggered by a viral infection.
Risk factors for childhood asthma
Multiple genes are now associated with asthma, and it’s been shown that parents with asthma often have children with similar symptoms. Boys are more likely to develop asthma in childhood up until puberty.
There are also various environmental factors during pregnancy which can contribute to the development of asthma. They include smoking and diets high in sugar whilst pregnant. Meanwhile, supplementing with vitamin E, zinc and polyunsaturated fatty acids during pregnancy has been shown to be protective.
Premature birth can raise the risk of asthma. And there’s some evidence to suggest that children who are exposed to certain medications like antibiotics or antipyretics may be more prone to asthma, but the jury is still out on these findings.
If you believe your child may be displaying symptoms of asthma, consult a doctor. Early management may make asthma more controllable long-term. Failure to treat asthma can be life-threatening.
- de Nijs, S, L Venekamp, & E Bel, "Adult-onset asthma: is it really different?.". in European Respiratory Review, 22, 2013, 44-52.
- Haahtela, T., Selroos, O. and O’Byrne, P.M. (2015). Revisiting early intervention in adult asthma. ERJ Open Research, [online] 1(1), pp.00022–02015. Available at: https://openres.ersjournals.com/content/1/1/00022-2015 [Accessed 24 Oct. 2019].
- InformedHealth.org [Internet]. Cologne, Germany: Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG); 2006-. Asthma: Overview. 2008 Jan 14 [Updated 2017 Nov 30]. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279520/
- Asthma.net. (2018). Not Your Usual Asthma Symptoms - Asthma.net. [online] Available at: https://asthma.net/living/not-your-usual-asthma-symptoms/ [Accessed 24 Oct. 2019].
- Dharmage, S.C., Perret, J.L. and Custovic, A. (2019). Epidemiology of Asthma in Children and Adults. Frontiers in Pediatrics, 7.
- CDC (2018). Asthma in children. [online] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/childhood-asthma/index.html.
- Trivedi, M. and Denton, E. (2019). Asthma in Children and Adults—What Are the Differences and What Can They Tell us About Asthma? Frontiers in Pediatrics, 7.