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Home / Asthma / Asthma symptoms: what to expect and how they vary

Asthma symptoms: what to expect and how they vary

Learn more about the wide variety of asthma symptoms

Breathlessness, a tight chest and a cough are known worldwide as the defining symptoms of asthma. However, there are many symptoms and complications that are unusual or are neglected in discussions of asthma symptoms. Many also don’t realise that symptoms will vary depending on what triggers them.

No matter how confusing this may seem, the good news is that all of these asthma symptoms can be controlled with the right medication and lifestyle changes. In this article, we will discuss the types of asthma, their individual symptoms as well as some of the more unusual symptoms.

What is asthma?

Asthma is a respiratory condition that affects the airways and lung function. The airways are the tubes that carry air in and out of your lungs. If you have asthma, these airways become inflamed, narrow and filled with mucus, limiting airflow and making it difficult to breathe.

What causes asthma to develop is not well understood, but the symptoms themselves are often caused by a certain trigger such as an allergen, irritant, exercise or seasonal changes. Asthma affects people of all ages and in a whole variety of ways. Your symptoms and asthma triggers may be entirely different to someone else’s.

What are the common symptoms of asthma?

Although most cases of asthma develop during early childhood, it can develop later into adolescence and adulthood. So it’s important to know the signs if you experience them.

The most common signs of asthma include:

  • shortness of breath
  • chest tightness, pain or pressure (may feel like a band around your chest)
  • wheezing (a whistling sound when breathing)
  • coughing that is often worse at night

When you come into contact with an asthma trigger, your symptoms may get temporarily worse and flare up. This can cause asthma attacks.

Symptoms of an asthma attack may include:

  • wheezing, tight chest and coughing symptoms worsening and becoming more constant
  • difficulty breathing that prevents you from eating, speaking or sleeping
  • breathing faster
  • increase in heart rate
  • feeling tired, confused or dizzy
  • blue lips and/or fingers
  • feeling faint or fainting

A severe asthma attack can be life threatening, so it’s paramount that you know the warning signs and act quickly: use your reliever inhaler or get medical attention as soon as possible.

Close up of woman clutching her chest struggling for breath.

Do different types of asthma cause different symptoms?

Which symptoms you experience, how severe they are, how often they occur and when they occur will depend on the type of asthma you have. Most types of asthma are characterised by a certain trigger, however there are other types that are less understood.

Understanding what triggers your symptoms is the key to asthma management.

Allergic asthma symptoms

One of the most common types of asthma is allergic asthma, in which your symptoms are triggered by having an allergy to certain substances. The most common of these being hay fever (allergic rhinitis), where it is estimated that up to 80% of asthma sufferers also have hay fever.

The condition is caused by an misfired immune response to an allergy to pollen, dust mites, mould or pet dander. Hay fever triggers asthma symptoms as the allergen enters the respiratory system via your nose, eyes or mouth. Asthmatics’ airways are already sensitive, so the allergen can quickly inflame them and cause mucus buildup.

If you suffer with hay fever, you’ll most likely experience additional cold-like symptoms during high pollen seasons:

  • sneezing
  • blocked or runny nose
  • watery, itchy or red eyes
  • itchy throat, mouth, nose and ears
  • headache or earache

As well as hay fever, food allergies can also trigger asthma symptoms. Eggs, soy, gluten, nuts are all common food allergens. A severe allergic reaction can appear like an asthma attack and can equally cause an attack, so it’s important to take the necessary precautions

Man sneezing into a tissue outside in front of a blossoming tree.

Non-allergic asthma symptoms

Non-allergic asthma is a more general type of asthma that encompasses a range of different triggers, including:

  • air pollution
  • exercise or sex
  • colds, flu and respiratory infections
  • certain medicines and recreational drugs
  • weather changes (e.g during the winter or thunderstorms)

Your symptoms may become worse during the specific circumstances of each trigger. Some of these triggers may cause slightly varying symptoms.

For instance, you may experience a high temperature or fever if you’re suffering from a flu or chest infection as well as your typical asthma symptoms. Other additional examples may include needing to stop more frequently or taking longer to recover if sex and exercise are some of your triggers.

Woman using inhaler outside during the winter.

Adult-onset asthma symptoms

Although asthma most commonly develops during childhood, there are cases of asthma that are caused by certain lifestyle factors. Unlike childhood asthma, adult-onset asthma can be alleviated by certain lifestyle changes.

Causes of adult-onset asthma include:

  • obesity
  • occupational asthma (caused by an irritant at your place of work)
  • tobacco smoke
  • stress, anxiety and other mood changes
  • hormonal changes (i.e throughout your menstrual cycle or whilst pregnant)

Similar to the previous two asthma types, your symptoms will worsen when in contact with a specific trigger (e.g during your period or during a stressful time).

However, asthma caused by your weight, occupation or cigarette smoke will likely occur consistently. They may also cause specific symptoms.

For example, occupational asthma may also result in conjunctivitis (itchy, red eye) and rhinitis (runny, itchy or blocked nose). If you’re overweight, you’ll likely experience additional complications as well as asthma, such as reduced mobility and joint pain.

Close up of woman coughing whilst holding a cigarette.

Difficult or severe asthma symptoms

Difficult asthma is asthma that is more difficult to treat, either due to other health problems or because you forget to take your medicines. Severe asthma, on the other hand, is a type of asthma that does not respond well to standard treatment and affects around 4 in every 100 people with asthma in the UK.

These two types have very different underlying causes but can result in very similar symptoms. If you have difficult or severe asthma you may experience:

  • frequent symptom flare-ups and/or asthma attacks
  • asthma symptoms that persist despite you using your medicine correctly and avoiding your triggers
  • needing to use your blue inhaler (reliever inhaler) 3 or more times a week

People with these types of asthma usually have to work closely with an asthma specialist to find out why your asthma is difficult to control and to decide the best asthma treatment for you.

What are asthma symptoms in children?

Whilst asthma symptoms in children aren’t any different, your child might not be able to convey what they’re feeling or describe their symptoms that well.

Here are some changes to look out for:

  • persistent cough that is worse during the night, early morning, exercise or whilst excited or laughing
  • a high-pitched whistling sound when they breathe out
  • a tight chest that they may describe as a ‘tummy ache’ - they may also rub their stomach or chest more to self soothe
  • visible effort to breathe (e.g shrugging their shoulders or sucking in their stomach)
  • getting more out of breath whilst playing and taking longer to recover
  • activity levels changes because they can’t take part
  • becoming more quiet, distant or agitated

What are some unusual symptoms of asthma?

While you may be well aware of the typical symptoms of asthma, there are several that you may not expect.

Here, we list some of the more unusual and less discussed symptoms of asthma.

Yawning and sighing

Many people with asthma say they yawn or sigh a lot, and often it is a warning sign of an asthma attack. You’re probably yawning right now as you read this. But why does this happen?

There are many theories for why we yawn. One of the more popular theories for why we yawn is that the body is subconsciously trying to get more oxygen into the body. However, these findings have not been well supported and instead many favour the theories that it wakes the brain up when you’re bored or tired, and research has linked yawning to more sophisticated neurological and psychological processes.

Unfortunately, there’s not much research into asthma in relation to sighing and yawning. However, many asthma sufferers report this symptom and it should be toned when you’re trying to keep track of your symptoms.

Man yawning in front of purple background.

Chronic cough

Cough variant asthma (CVA) is a quite unusual type of asthma because it does not present many of the typical asthma symptoms. Instead, people with CVA will suffer with a chronic cough.

People with this kind of asthma have a dry cough for up to 8 weeks or more, as opposed to a cough that comes and goes depending on your triggers. People will find it gets worse at night and in response to their respective asthma triggers. It’s not understood why this condition occurs, but one theory posits that it could be a warning sign for developing asthma.

A chronic cough can be difficult to diagnose, as it could be several conditions including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and gastroesophageal reflux (GORD) to name a few. That’s why it’s important you speak to your healthcare provider if your asthma symptoms change.

Close up of young woman coughing into her hand outside.

Sleep difficulties

Asthma symptoms tend to get worse at night. In fact, one study showed that up to 75% of asthma sufferers were woken up at least once a week by their symptoms and 40% suffered from symptoms every night.

Over time, night-time can result in sleep difficulties and, in worst cases, sleep disorders such as insomnia.

You may experience:

  • daytime sleepiness
  • difficulty staying or getting to sleep
  • feeling tired or irritable during the day
  • difficulty remembering things or concentrating throughout the day

A lack of sleep can also exacerbate asthma symptoms even more, as research has found that a lack of sleep can lead to an increase of inflammation in the body. Thus, creating a vicious cycle of symptoms.

Woman reaching out to switch off alarm clock.

Anxiety and depression

Like many chronic illnesses, asthma can significantly impact your mental health. Asthma is a frightening and exhausting condition, so there is a high prevalence of mental health disorders in asthma patients.

Depression is characterised by persistent feelings of sadness that can make you feel sad, exhausted and irritable. It can also cause physical symptoms, make you not want to do your hobbies or see the people you love.

Anxiety disorder is a constant feeling of unease or worry about certain situations. It makes your heart race, your muscles tense and can affect your breathing. It can also cause panic attacks which is characterised by a sudden episode of intense fear that can appear very much like an asthma attack.

These mental health conditions are caused by the negative thoughts surrounding asthma. Many feel like they’ll never find a treatment that works, they’re terrified of having an asthma attack or can’t leave their house because they’re afraid of coming into contact with triggers.

These conditions cyclically make your asthma worse, so it’s important to consult your doctor about how you’re feeling and they can refer you to talk therapy if you need it.

Man looking down with head in his hands depressed.

How do I manage my asthma?

Living with asthma can be challenging, but there are several ways you can manage and prevent flare-ups.

The key to asthma control is having an asthma action plan. This is a detailed personal information sheet that you create with your doctor or asthma nurse and includes:

  • a list of your asthma triggers
  • details of your asthma medicines
  • what to do if your symptoms get worse
  • signs of an asthma attack
  • what to do during an asthma attack
  • contact details of your GP or asthma nurse

This plan is to be kept with you, put up at home, given to your employer or anyone else important. That way, you and everyone else knows what to do during an asthma emergency and get you the medical help you need. You should also take this plan with you to every asthma review in case your condition or your medication changes.

A crucial part of managing your asthma is taking your medications correctly. Your treatment plan will very much depend on the nature of your condition. The most common combination of treatment involves two asthma inhalers: a preventer inhaler and a reliever inhaler (bronchodilators).

If you have severe or difficult asthma, you may need extra medicines on top of this such as steroids or tablets like theophylline to help keep your symptoms in check.

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