How to know if you have asthma

You’re wheezing and coughing, and you’re not sure why. You may wonder how to know if you have asthma, as opposed to a different condition. That’s why we’re here.

Asthma is a chronic illness characterized by episodes of abrupt worsening of symptoms caused by inflammation and narrowing of the bronchial tubes. People with the disease experience asthma symptoms when the airways tighten, inflame, or fill with mucus.

Classic asthma symptoms can vary widely between people and asthma attacks. For this reason, it can be difficult to know if what you’re experiencing is really asthma.

Common asthma symptoms

Asthma symptoms include:  

  • Coughing, often with exertion
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness, pain, or pressure.

Not every person has the same signs and symptoms of asthma, and some may resemble those that occur with other illnesses.

For example, although allergy and asthma symptoms can be related, allergies occur in the upper respiratory system and are coupled with nasal congestion, sinus pain, and nasal drip.

Asthma, on the other hand, affects the airways that carry air to and from the lungs.

Asthma symptoms in kids

Young children often have respiratory illnesses, and some kids seem more vulnerable than others. Parents may wonder how to know if their child has asthma. 

Children have smaller airways than adults, which means their asthma symptoms can be more severe and may be somewhat different. Asthma symptoms in kids may look like this: 

  • An unusual whitish, bluish, or grayish tinge (called cyanosis) to fingernails, tongue, lips, or around eyes.
  • Coughing that won’t go away
  • Faster, or more labored breathing or panting with normal activities or light play
  • Infants may have trouble sucking at the breast or bottle
  • Signs of breathing restrictions like flared nostrils, concaving chest, or extreme belly expansion and contraction.
  • Whistling or wheezing sounds with breathing
  • Your child is too exhausted for regular activities

Some kids remain surprisingly active even with restricted airways. Any time a child has trouble breathing, including the above symptoms, it is an emergency and is necessary to get them to a hospital right away. 

Allergic asthma symptoms

Allergies are the most common cause of asthma, responsible for about 60% of asthma diagnoses. In people with allergic asthma, a reaction to an allergen is the reason behind the asthma symptoms. 

When someone has an allergic reaction, their immune system mistakes the substance for a harmful invader. Sometimes the immune system has an extreme reaction causing swelling of the airways. This swelling causes asthma symptoms. 

Allergic asthma symptoms are the same as any other type of asthma. These include persistent coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath and chest tightness. 

Finding out what you’re allergic to through a doctor’s diagnosis and then avoiding those allergens is the best way to prevent experiencing allergic asthma symptoms. Some common allergens include: 

  • Cockroach feces and saliva
  • Dust mites
  • Mold
  • Pet dander
  • Pollen

How do you know if you have asthma?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in 13 people in the United States has asthma.

You’re more likely to have asthma if you have a parent or close relative with allergies or asthma, and if you have a history of wheezing (without having a cold), inflammation in the nose (allergic rhinitis) or eczema (an allergic skin condition).

If you answered yes to any of the following questions, you may have asthma and should consult your healthcare provider:

  • Do you ever feel like you’re breathing through a cocktail straw?
  • Is there a whistling or squeaky sound in your chest when you breathe?
  • Do you ever feel like your throat or chest is too tight and that you can’t get enough air?

Ultimately, it takes a medical expert’s diagnosis to determine how to know if you have asthma. 

Asthma warning signs

Some patients may feel uncertain if their symptoms are serious enough to visit the doctor. There are some warning signs that your body is reacting more severely to environmental allergies or other triggers, including:

  • Exposures to allergens that cause chest tightness or coughing
  • Unusual breathing difficulty when you have a cold or other mild illness
  • Normal breathing is more difficult in cold air or weather changes
  • Waking up at night due to difficulty breathing 
  • Coughing with physical activity
  • Difficulty breathing when feeling stressed or anxious

Any of these asthma warning signs indicate that it may be time for an appointment with your healthcare provider. 

Tests for asthma

At your appointment, your medical team may offer certain tests to determine how well your lungs are functioning. Typical asthma testing includes the spirometry test, the challenge test, and an exhaled nitric oxide test. 

A spirometer is a simple tool used to gauge how much air your lungs can exhale. You’ll exhale forcefully into a plastic tube, and your breath will push a float inside the tube upward. If the results are under normal parameters, you may have asthma. 

If your spirometer test is normal, the provider may offer a challenge test.  You’ll be exposed to an asthmatic trigger such as exercise or a medication that causes airway narrowing in people with asthma. After exposure, the spirometry test is given again to see if the results are still normal. 

Nitric oxide is a gas that humans normally breathe out, but people with asthma produce more because of their airway inflammation. Your provider can see if your levels are normal by having you exhale into a nitric oxide machine. 

It is generally too challenging for small children to perform lung tests, so they have a different standard of care. Children with asthma symptoms may be given medication that reduces asthmatic swelling. If the medication eases symptoms, your child may be diagnosed with asthma.

How urgent care can help with your asthma

The providers at urgent care can help diagnose and, if necessary, treat asthma symptoms.

During your visit, a healthcare professional will discuss potential triggers and measure how easily air moves in and out of your lungs. They can perform chest X-rays, provide nebulizer treatments, and prescribe medications to keep you breathing easily.

If you need help assessing and treating asthma, come see the experts at one of our urgent care locations. You can walk in without an appointment, or you can check in online. We’ll have you back to feeling better in no time.

Written by Sarah Thebarge, Physician Assistant