You might think you know the signs of asthma because hey, it seems like one of those health conditions that is absolutely unmistakable. It’s kind of obvious if you just…can’t really breathe, right? Sure, but asthma symptoms can present with a lot more complexity and subtlety than that. “Many people do not realize they have asthma and deal with daily symptoms,” Purvi Parikh, M.D., an allergist and immunologist with Allergy & Asthma Network, tells SELF. Because of that, you should be aware of the signs of asthma so you don’t write them off for months or even years without realizing you have this persistent—and ultimately treatable—health condition.
What is asthma, anyway?
First up, a little anatomy refresher: Your airways, which extend between your nose and mouth and your lungs, have the very important job of carrying air in and out of your body, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). When you have asthma, triggers like animal fur, pollen, mold, cold air, cigarette smoke, exercise, and respiratory infections like colds cause your airways to get inflamed, according to the NHLBI. That inflammation can cause swelling, which in turn can prompt the muscles around your airways to tighten, making it hard to get air in and out. At the same time, your airways might also expel more mucus than they usually do, making it even harder to breathe.
Experts don’t know exactly what causes some people to get asthma when others don’t, but it’s pretty safe to assume that it’s probably a combination of environmental factors and genetic factors. For example, if someone in your immediate family has asthma, you’re more likely to have it too, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Beyond that, the general cause is a stronger-than-normal response from your immune system to certain triggers, which is why you get all that inflammation when people without asthma don’t, says the NHLBI.
Speaking of triggers, everyone has different ones. For some people, asthma flares up in specific situations, according to the Mayo Clinic. For example, it’s possible to have exercise-induced asthma, occupational asthma, and allergy-induced asthma. Exercise-induced asthma is pretty much what it sounds like, and may be worse when the air is dry and cold. Your workplace might trigger occupational asthma if you’re around irritants like chemical fumes, gases, or dust. Allergy-induced asthma happens around airborne substances like pollen, mold spores, cockroach waste, or particles of skin and pet dander. You can learn more about these and the other different types of asthma here.
So, what are the symptoms you should watch out for?
Which signs of asthma you might experience differs from person to person and some are more common than others, Raymond Casciari, M.D., a pulmonologist at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, California, tells SELF. It’s possible that you’ll have such a mild reaction to one of your personal asthma triggers that you don’t take much note of it. But if the effects get worse, they can turn into an asthma attack, which is a potentially life-threatening exacerbation of asthma symptoms. That’s why it’s so important to know the common signs of asthma, including the more subtle ones.
Common symptoms of asthma
These are classic asthma signs you should know:
Shortness of breath: This is an obvious complication that happens when you can’t get enough oxygen due to the way your airways and their surrounding muscles are reacting to asthma triggers, Sadia Benzaquen, M.D., a pulmonologist and associate professor in the department of internal medicine at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, tells SELF.
Cough: When an irritant gets into your throat or airways, it stimulates nerves that prompt your brain to make the muscles in your chest and abdomen expel air from your lungs with a cough, according to the Mayo Clinic. Since a sensitivity to irritants can cause asthma symptoms, coughing is a hallmark sign of this condition, says Dr. Benzaquen. In fact, it’s the most common sign of asthma Dr. Parikh has seen people ignore.
Wheezing: When your airways narrow, you don’t have as much space through which to breathe. As a result, you can experience wheezing, which may sound similar to the whistling sound you might hear if you were to breathe through a straw, Dr. Parikh says.
Chest tightness: When you have asthma, it’s tough to get air in—but it’s also tough to get air out, Dr. Casciari says. “If you take a really deep breath and then try to take another one on top of it, your chest feels tight. That’s what it can feel like when you have asthma, because air gets trapped in there,” he says.
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