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7 surprising symptoms of asthma

Person with AsthmaAsthma, a chronic condition that affects the airways in the lungs, can lead to a range of symptoms that interfere with daily life. While most people are familiar with the most common symptoms of asthma such as wheezing or whistling sounds, shortness of breath, chest tightness and frequent coughing, several others are not as widely recognized.

If you’ve been diagnosed with asthma, or suspect you may have asthma, it’s important to work with your primary care physician to manage the condition. If necessary, your primary care doctor may also put you in contact with a lung specialist or allergist to get your asthma under control.

If you don’t have a primary care provider, use our online search tool to find an internist or family medicine provider who is taking new patients.

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Asthma can be marked by episodes of airway constriction and inflammation and requires proactive management to prevent attacks and ensure swift, effective responses when they occur. Understanding obvious and not-so-obvious early warning signs is crucial for accurate detection and management of asthma — before it becomes life-threatening.

Here, we delve into seven lesser-known symptoms of asthma that adults should be aware of, especially if this condition has been an issue in the past.

1. Difficulty speaking in full sentences

One of the unexpected signs of an asthma flare-up can be the inability to speak in complete sentences without pausing for breath. This symptom arises because the airways are so narrowed or obstructed that they cannot provide enough air flow for normal speech. If you find yourself frequently struggling to communicate without taking breaks to breathe, it might be time to consult a health care provider about the possibility of asthma.

2. Disturbed sleep

Frequent waking during the night with coughing, wheezing or shortness of breath can be a sign of nocturnal asthma. Many people do not associate their disrupted sleep patterns with asthma. However, asthma symptoms can indeed flare up at night, triggered by allergens in the bedroom environment, such as dust mites, pet dander or even temperature changes.

3. Rapid breathing

Rapid breathing, or hyperventilation, is another symptom that can be easily overlooked as a sign of asthma. During an asthma attack, the body's natural response is to increase breathing rate to compensate for reduced airflow. This can lead to feelings of anxiety or panic, which further exacerbates the situation.

4. Anxiety and depression

The relationship between asthma and psychological conditions such as anxiety and depression is complex. The stress of dealing with a chronic condition can lead to mental health issues. Conversely, anxiety can worsen asthma symptoms, creating a vicious cycle. Recognizing the psychological impact of asthma is crucial for comprehensive care.

5. Fatigue

Chronic fatigue is a less obvious symptom of asthma. When you're not getting enough oxygen due to restricted airways, it can lead to feelings of constant tiredness and lack of energy. This symptom can be particularly insidious, as it's easy to attribute fatigue to a busy lifestyle or stress rather than an underlying health issue like asthma.

6. Difficulty concentrating

Closely related to fatigue, difficulty concentrating can also be a symptom of poorly controlled asthma. The brain requires a steady supply of oxygen to function optimally. When asthma interferes with normal breathing, it can lead to cognitive effects such as trouble focusing or memory issues.

7. Exercise intolerance

Struggling to engage in physical activity that you used to enjoy can be a sign of exercise-induced asthma. This condition is characterized by airway constriction during or after exercise, leading to symptoms such as coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath. Many people might not link their decreased exercise capacity with asthma, attributing it to being out of shape instead.

Reducing your risk of an asthma attack

Individuals can significantly reduce the frequency and severity of asthma attacks by identifying and avoiding known asthma triggers, such as allergens (e.g., pollen, dust mites, pet dander), irritants (e.g., tobacco smoke, pollution, strong odors) and respiratory infections. 

Regular use of prescribed preventative medications, such as inhaled corticosteroids, plays a crucial role in controlling chronic inflammation and reducing the risk of severe exacerbations. It's also important for individuals to monitor asthma symptoms and lung function with a peak flow meter, a device that measures the maximum speed of exhalation, to detect early signs of worsening asthma control. 

Developing and following an asthma action plan, created in collaboration with a health care provider, can empower patients to recognize early symptoms of an attack, adjust their medication according to the severity of their symptoms, and know when to seek emergency care. 

During an asthma attack, it's vital to stay calm, sit upright to ease breathing and use a quick-relief inhaler, or rescue inhaler (such as albuterol), as directed. If difficulty breathing persists or worsens after following these initial steps, it is imperative to seek immediate medical help. 

By combining avoidance of triggers, adherence to preventive medication regimens, regular monitoring and a well-conceived action plan, individuals with asthma can effectively manage their condition and minimize the impact on their daily lives.

Managing asthma with your primary care physician

Recognizing these surprising asthma symptoms is the first step toward managing asthma effectively and getting proper asthma treatment. If you suspect you have asthma or have noticed any of the symptoms, it's essential to partner with a primary care physician. They can perform tests to diagnose asthma and develop a personalized asthma action plan. This plan may include the use of inhalers and oral medications to treat asthma, lifestyle adjustments and strategies to avoid triggers.

Working closely with your primary care physician to monitor and adjust your treatment as needed can help you lead a healthier, more comfortable life despite having asthma. Remember, asthma is a manageable condition, and with the right care and precautions, you can minimize its impact on your daily activities.

Asthma affects everyone differently, but it doesn't have to define your life. By staying informed about all potential symptoms and working with your doctor, you can take control of your asthma and maintain a better quality of life. 

BJC Medical Group doctors and nurse practitioners are here to help you. Use our online search tool to find a provider who is taking new patients and schedule your appointment online. 

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A BJC primary care provider serves as your health partner, providing preventive health care and treatment for illnesses, injuries and chronic conditions. If you do not have one, find a primary care provider accepting new patients. Learn more.

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