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Overview

In the United States, asthma affects an estimated 26 million people — many of whom may not be aware that they have it, especially if their symptoms aren’t severe.

The most common signs of asthma are:

  • Coughing, especially at night, during exercise or when laughing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest tightness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing (a whistling or squeaky sound in your chest when breathing, especially when exhaling)

Any asthma symptom is serious and can become deadly if left untreated. If you’re experiencing one or more of these symptoms, visit an allergist for a diagnosis — and then develop an asthma action plan.

Causes

Asthma symptoms may be triggered by exposure to an allergen (such as ragweedpollen, animal dander or dust mites), irritants in the air (such as smoke, chemical fumes or strong odors) or extreme weather conditions. Exercise or an illness — particularly a respiratory illness or the flu — can also make you more susceptible.

A physical display of strong emotion that affects normal breathing patterns — such as shouting, crying or laughing — can also act as an asthma trigger. Panic can prevent a person with asthma from relaxing and following instructions, which is essential during an asthma attack. Scientists have found that rapid breathing associated with strong emotions can cause bronchial tubes to constrict, possibly provoking or worsening an attack.

Asthma symptoms can appear at any time. Mild episodes may last only a few minutes and may be resolved spontaneously or with medication; more severe episodes can last from hours to days.

People with asthma, like those with any chronic condition, may experience significant stress. Because it is a leading cause of work and school absences, asthma can affect a person’s livelihood, education and emotional well-being. Depression may set in when people diagnosed with asthma believe that they are unable to participate in normal activities.

If you’re experiencing breathing difficulties that interfere with your daily activities and decrease the quality of your life, visit an asthma screening event in your area and see an allergist for diagnosis and treatment. An allergist can also help you recognize the early warning signs of an attack and coach you in ways to cope during an emergency.

Asthma Symptoms in Children

Most children with asthma have symptoms before they turn 5. In very young children, it may be hard for parents, and even doctors, to recognize that the symptoms are due to asthma. The bronchial tubes in infants, toddlers and preschoolers are already small and narrow, and head colds, chest colds and other illnesses can inflame these airways, making them even smaller and more irritated.

The symptoms of pediatric asthma can range from a nagging cough that lingers for days or weeks to sudden and scary breathing emergencies.

Common symptoms to watch for include:

  • Coughing, especially at night
  • A wheezing or whistling sound when breathing, especially when exhaling
  • Trouble breathing or fast breathing that causes the skin around the ribs or neck to pull in tightly
  • Frequent colds that settle in the chest

Your child might have only one of these symptoms or several of them. You may think it’s just a cold or bronchitis. If the symptoms recur, that’s a clue that your child might have asthma. In addition, symptoms may worsen when your child is around asthma triggers, such as irritants in the air (smoke or strong odors, for example) or allergens like pollen, pet dander and dust mites.

For more information, visit the Asthma in Children page.

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