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 obvious if you just … can’t really breathe, right? Sure, but asthma symptoms can be much more complex and subtle. “A lot of people don’t know they have asthma and are dealing with the daily symptoms,” says Dr. Purvi Parikh, allergist and immunologist at Allergy & Asthma Network, told SELF. For this reason, you should be aware of the signs of asthma so that you don’t write them off over months or even years without realizing that you are suffering from this persistent – and ultimately treatable ̵
What is asthma anyway?
First, a quick refresher on the anatomy: Your airways, which extend between your nose, mouth, and lungs, have a very important job, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), of moving air into and out of your body. When you have asthma, triggers like animal fur, pollen, mold, cold air, cigarette smoke, exercise, and respiratory infections like colds cause your airways to become inflamed, according to the NHLBI. This inflammation can cause swelling, which in turn can cause the muscles around your airways to contract, making it difficult to get air in and out. At the same time, your airways can expel more mucus than usual, making breathing even more difficult.
Experts don’t know exactly why some people get asthma when others don’t, but it is fairly safe to assume that it is likely due to a combination of environmental and genetic factors. For example, if someone in your immediate family has asthma, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is more likely to have asthma as well. Additionally, the general cause is an above-average response from your immune system to certain triggers, which is why you get all of this inflammation when people without asthma don’t, the NHLBI says.
Speaking of triggers, everyone has different. According to the Mayo Clinic, some people experience asthma in certain situations. For example, it is possible to have exercise-induced asthma, occupational asthma, and allergic-related asthma. Exercise-related asthma is pretty much what it sounds like and can be worse when the air is dry and cold. Your workplace can trigger occupational asthma if you are around irritants such as chemical fumes, gases, or dust. Allergy-induced asthma occurs around substances in the air, such as pollen, mold spores, cockroach waste, or skin particles and flakes of skin. You can learn more about this and the other types of asthma here.
So what symptoms should you look out for?
The signs of asthma that can appear vary from person to person, and some are more common than others, says Dr. Raymond Casciari, pulmonologist at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, California, told SELF. It is possible that you react so easily to one of your personal asthma triggers that you don’t realize much about it. However, if the effects worsen, they can lead to an asthma attack, which is a potentially life-threatening worsening of asthma symptoms. This is why it is so important to know the most common signs of asthma, including the more subtle ones.
Common symptoms of asthma
These are classic asthma signs that you should know about:
shortness of breath: This is an obvious complication that occurs when you cannot get enough oxygen due to the response of your airways and surrounding muscles to asthma triggers. Dr. med. Sadia Benzaquen, pulmonologist and associate professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, tells HERSELF.
to cough: When an irritant gets into your throat or airway, it stimulates the nerves that cause your brain to cough the muscles in your chest and abdomen to expel air from your lungs, according to the Mayo Clinic. Because sensitivity to irritants can cause symptoms of asthma, coughing is a hallmark of the condition, says Dr. Benzaquen. In fact, it is the most common sign of asthma that Dr. Parikh saw.
Panting: When your airways narrow, you don’t have that much room to breathe. As a result, wheezing can occur, which sounds similar to the whistling you might hear when breathing through a straw, says Dr. Parikh.
Chest tightness: When you have asthma, it’s difficult to get air in – but it’s also difficult to get air out, says Dr. Casciari. “If you take a really deep breath and then try to take another one, your chest will feel tight. This is what it can feel like when you have asthma because there is air in there, ”he says.