You Must Know the Signs and Symptoms of Asthma

by John Bottrell Health Professional

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recommends in their asthma guidelines that all asthmatics work with their doctor to create an asthma action plan
specifically tailored for the individual.
A key part of this plan includes understanding your personal symptoms of asthma.

The asthma guidelines recommend two methods of monitoring asthma, one includes peak flow monitoring (covered in this sharepost), and the other is symptom monitoring (covered in this post).
The guidelines suggest that which one you use is up to you.

According to, your body gives you early warning signs of asthma, signs an attack is ongoing, and signs of severe asthma.

Early Warning Signs:
These are signs that an asthma attack has not started yet, and actions you take can prevent an attack from coming (such as using your bronchodilator):

  • Breathing changes

  • Feeling tired

  • Feel funny in chest

  • Headache

  • Easily upset

  • Feel week

  • Eyes look glassy

  • Dark circles under eyes

  • Feel sad

  • Get excited

  • Pale

  • Stuffy nose

  • Sweaty

  • Feverish

  • Grumpy

  • Chin or throat itches

  • Heart beats faster

  • Coughing

  • Sneezing

  • Change in sputum

  • Runny nose

  • Dry mouth

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Poor tolerance for exercise

  • Downward trend in peak flows

Treatment of early warning signs most often entails taking two puffs of your resce inhaler.
If your symptoms do not improve within 20-30 mintues, you should call your physician.

Signs of acute asthma attack:
These are signs that an asthma attack is going on right now, and action must be taken to prevent them from getting worse (Like getting away from your asthma triggers or using an inhaler).

  • Wheezing

  • Coughing

  • Shortness of breath

  • Tightness in the chest

  • Peak flow numbers in the caution or danger range (usually 50% to 80% of personal best)

Treatment for acute asthma often entails using your rescue inhaler, or taking a breathing treatment.
If symptoms do not improve within the next 20-30 minutes, you should call your doctor.
Treatment may also include removing yourself from whatever was
triggering your asthma.

Signs of severe asthma episode:
According to, "Severe asthma symptoms are a life-threatening emergency. If any of these severe asthma symptoms occur, seek emergency medical treatment right away, since these symptoms indicate respiratory distress."

  • Severe coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath or tightness in the chest

  • Difficulty talking or concentrating

  • Walking causes shortness of breath

  • Breathing may be shallow and fast or slower than usual

  • Hunched shoulders (posturing)

  • Nasal flaring (nostril size increases with breathing)

  • Neck area and between or below the ribs moves inward with breathing (retractions) (see signs of asthma in infants)

  • Gray or bluish tint to skin, beginning around the mouth (cyanosis)

  • Peak flow numbers in the danger zone (usually below 50% of personal best)

Treatment here may depend on your asthma action plan.
One action may be to take 2-6 puffs of your inhaler, or it may entail taking a breathing treatment.
It may also entail seeking someone to help you, or calling 911.

When I learned about asthma signs and symptoms when I was a kid it greatly helped me control my asthma.
Even today, while I don't let my asthma stop me from doing anything, when I observe my early warning signs I know it's time to stop and take action.

Therefore, you can see why I think it is of utmost importance for every asthmatic to know their own unique signs and symptoms of asthma, and to have an asthma action plan in place to help you decide what action to take.

(For sample asthma action plans click here and here).

John Bottrell
Meet Our Writer
John Bottrell

John Bottrell is a registered Respiratory Therapist. He wrote for HealthCentral as a health professional for Asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).