As with any disease, there are hallmark symptoms that characterize asthma. When you are able to keep your asthma under control through trigger avoidance and medication, these symptoms should not be too evident. However, almost everyone who has asthma does have times when asthma symptoms need to be dealt with. So, in this article, I’ll provide some quick tips for managing asthma symptoms.
The typical symptoms of asthma include:
- Coughing, usually a dry, hacking type cough
- Wheezing, a whistling noise when you breathe
- Shortness of breath, feeling as though you can’t catch your breath
- Chest tightness, feeling as though your lungs can’t expand fully
- Rapid, shallow breathing
All of these symptoms are tied to the inflammation of the airways that occurs with asthma. They are a direct response to the narrowing and irritation in your airways. They may be triggered by allergens, if you have allergic asthma. Common allergens include pollen, dust, pet dander and molds. Irritants in your environment, such as strong odors, smoke or chemical fumes, can also trigger asthma symptoms.
The best way to manage your symptoms when you are having an asthma attack is to take your quick-relief inhaler, if you have one. What you don’t want to do is to ignore them. This is because they can quickly worsen and become a real threat to your health. But, as you wait for your medication to kick in, here are a few tips for dealing with the individual symptoms.
I don’t know about you but when I am having an asthma attack, the cough is often the first symptom. It can come on suddenly, without warning. It’s usually a dry cough that feels like a response to a tickle in my throat. It’s hard to resist and can quickly accelerate into an uncontrollable coughing “fit,” where your eyes water and you can’t catch your breath. Can you relate?
Also, a cough is one of the most common asthma symptoms that occurs at night or when you lie down. So, if a cough comes on while you’re in bed, the first step is to sit up, which can allow the airways to inflate more fully.
I’ve also found that taking a drink of something cold can be soothing to that “tickle.” Conversely, hot (or warm) tea or even water with lemon and honey can also be soothing and may calm your cough.
Finally, you might try sucking on a honey and lemon type cough drop. It is rarely necessary to use any kind of cough medicine for an asthma cough.
To prevent a cough, be sure to stay hydrated. Drinking 6 to 8 glasses of water a day will help keep the mucous membranes in your airways moister and more resistant to a cough.
A wheeze is that whistling, squeaky sound that you make during as asthma attack when you breathe. It is most common when you breathe out, but I’ve had it during inhales as well.
There’s not a lot you can do about wheezing except wait for your quick-relief inhaler to kick in, but here are a few more tips.
Adding humidity to the air you are breathing may soothe a wheeze. So stepping into a hot, steamy shower can help. So can using a humidifier, provided it is mold-free. Drinking some fluids may also help.
If the wheeze has been triggered by exposure to an irritant in the air, such as tobacco smoke, then do what you can to move away from the trigger.
If a wheeze does not get better quickly after using your medicine, you may need to seek emergency care, as a worsening wheeze can be life-threatening.
Shortness of Breath
For me, the symptom of not being able to quite “catch” your breath is one of the most frightening. And, as you become more anxious, that can worsen that feeling even more.
So, the first step is probably to do your best to calm yourself. Make a conscious effort to control your breathing. Sit quietly, perhaps with your eyes closed and take a slow, deep breath in through your nose. Pause for a quick moment at the top and then breathe out in a controlled fashion. Some people find it helps to breathe out through pursed lips, as though you are blowing out a candle. (There is a video demonstrating pursed lip breathing at the link in the previous sentence.)
When I was a child, I described this symptom as a “chest ache.” That was my child’s way of trying to translate the more familiar stomach ache to what I was feeling with what I believe was asthma. I was never diagnosed as a child, but I often experienced wheezing and chest tightness, especially during cold weather and allergy season. This was during the 1960s, so perhaps doctors weren’t as attuned to diagnosing asthma then as they are today?
Although I described my chest tightness as a child as an ache, it is not typically pain. To be more accurate, this is a feeling as though you have a band across your chest. You might also describe it as feeling like you can’t fully expand your lungs.
This is a common asthma symptom, although it generally occurs in concert with some of the previous symptoms discussed here. Please note: True pain in the chest is not an asthma symptom and could indicate something more serious. So, be sure you distinguish what you are feeling. If you truly are having pain, call the doctor.
Controlling your anxiety and your breathing is your best bet to relieving chest tightness while you wait for your medication to start working. The American Lung Association teaches you how to do belly breathing. This is a technique, where you train your diaphragm to take over the work of breathing, rather than using auxiliary muscles in the neck, back and chest. This is a much more effective way of breathing.
Rapid, Shallow Breathing
Like shortness of breath, this is an ineffective way of getting oxygen into your airways and carbon dioxide out. But it is a natural reaction to the anxiety you can feel when your asthma flares. Controlling your breathing is the key.
Use the pursed lip and belly breathing exercises linked to above to slow down your breathing and enhance the gas exchange that will help bring your breathing and your health back under control while you wait for medicine to act.
Asthma symptoms can be frightening, and can trigger other related symptoms such as anxiety and fatigue. In most cases, being sure to take your controller medication every day will go a long way toward preventing asthma symptoms in the first place. When that does not work all the time, then using a quick-relief inhaler will usually help get things under control.
Using the tips outlined in this post can also help you feel more in control while you wait for medication to do its thing. But, if none of these measures work and you find your symptoms don’t go away after 10 to 15 minutes — or they get worse — then don’t hesitate to call your doctor and/or seek emergency care. Unrelieved asthma symptoms can become life-threatening.