Early symptoms of asthma

asthmaThe early symptoms of asthma occur right before or at the very start of an asthmatic episode. These warning signs precede the more well-known asthma symptoms and are not so serious that they would disrupt a person’s normal routine. However, they are a harbinger of full-blown asthma.

Early asthma symptoms include:

  • Frequent coughing, in particular at night.
  • Easily losing breath.
  • Tiredness or weakness during exercise.
  • Wheezing or coughing after exercising.
  • Fatigue, irritability, moodiness.
  • Changes in peak respiratory flow.
  • Symptoms of a cold, upper respiratory infection, or allergy.
  • Difficulty sleeping.

Although asthma can affect people of all ages, children are more susceptible to it, especially boys – though more adult women have this condition than adult men.

Other risk factors are:

  • A blood relative with asthma.
  • Another allergic condition like atopic dermatitis or hay fever (most people with asthma have allergies).
  • Obesity.
  • Smoking.
  • Secondhand smoke.
  • A mother who smoked during pregnancy.
  • Exposure to exhaust fumes and pollution.
  • Exposure to chemicals used in farming, hairdressing, or manufacturing.

In addition to these risk factors, there are several environmental catalysts that can trigger asthma symptoms, including the following:

  • Airborne allergens (pollen, animal dander, mold, cockroaches, dust mites).
  • Respiratory infections.
  • Exercise.
  • Cold air.
  • Air pollutants and irritants.
  • Beta blockers, aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, and other medications.
  • Strong emotions.
  • Stress.
  • Sulfites and preservatives added to shrimp, dried fruit, processed potatoes, beer and wine.
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease.

Addressing the early symptoms of asthma as soon as they appear can prevent these same symptoms from worsening, as well as later and more severe symptoms and complications to take place.

Worsening symptoms

  • More frequent and bothersome symptoms.
  • Increased breathing difficulties measureable with a peak flow meter.
  • Needing a quick-relief inhaler more frequently.
  • Nagging cough during the day and night.
  • Wheezing.
  • Chest tightness.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Poor response to the aforementioned quick-relief inhaler.

Late, serious symptoms

  • Severe wheezing.
  • Non-stop coughing.
  • Very rapid breathing.
  • Inability to catch one’s breath.
  • Pain or pressure in the chest.
  • Tightness in the neck or chest.
  • Difficulty talking.
  • Inability to exhale fully.
  • Anxiety or panic.
  • Pale, sweaty face.
  • Blue lips or fingernails.


  • Symptoms disrupt sleep, work, or recreational activities.
  • Sick days from work or school.
  • Bronchial tubes permanently narrowing.
  • Visits to the ER or hospital stays.
  • Side effects from long-term asthma medication use.


Asthma can be diagnosed and classified with a few tests performed by a physician, such as:

  • Physical exam.
  • Lung function tests
  • Methacholine challenge.
  • Nitric oxide test.
  • Imaging tests.
  • Allergy testing.
  • Sputum eosinophils.
  • Provocative testing for exercise and cold-induced asthma.


Asthma classification

Mild intermittent

Mild persistent

Moderate persistent

Severe persistent


Up to 2 days a week and up to 2 nights a month.

More than twice a week, but not more than once in a single day

Once a day and more than 1 night a week.

Throughout the day on most days and often at night.


There is no cure for this condition, but paying attention to the early symptoms of asthma can lead to timely treatment as well as prevention of asthma attacks.

Asthma treatment and prevention

Long-term medications

  • Inhaled corticosteroids.
  • Leukotriene modifiers.
  • Long-acting beta agonists.
  • Combination inhalers.
  • Theophylline.

Quick-relief medications

  • Short-acting beta agonists.
  • Ipratropium.
  • Oral and intravenous corticosteroids.


  • Devise an action plan with a doctor and follow it.
  • Get influenza and pneumonia vaccinations.
  • Identify and avoid triggers.
  • Monitor breathing.
  • Take medications as prescribed.
  • Use air conditioner.
  • Decontaminate your environment.
  • Keep optimal humidity.
  • Prevent mold spores.
  • Decrease pet dander.
  • Clean on a regular basis.
  • Cover nose and mouth when it’s cold outside.
  • Eat fruits and vegetables.
  • Control GERD.


Even though physical activity can be an asthma trigger (exercised-induced asthma), it is important to remain physically active and maintain a healthy weight. Ask your doctor about ways to stay active in spite of asthma.

Related Read:

- Asthmatic Bronchitis: A mom's point of view