Skip to content

This information was reviewed and approved by Flavia Cecilia Lega Hoyte, MD (2/6/2023).

Asthma symptoms can range from very mild to severe. Some people with asthma have only occasional symptoms, and some have seasonal symptoms.

Others have a more chronic form of the disease and experience symptoms such as a chronic cough, shortness of breath or activity limitation weekly or daily. Some people have asthma attacks, in which symptoms develop suddenly.

You or your child can learn to recognize the signs of asthma, while taking precautions to decrease the exposure to triggers and the severity of asthma attacks. It is important to recognize and treat even mild symptoms. This can help decrease the amount of inflammation and reduce the risk of a more serious asthma flare-up.

If severe asthma symptoms are present, it is vital to start the appropriate treatment immediately. Accurate and timely assessment of symptoms can help you and your clinician decide if treatment should begin in the home, at your clinician's office or in the emergency room.


Asthma Attack Warning Signs

Early warning signs are experienced before the start of an asthma attack. By recognizing these clues, people with asthma can have a head start on treatment. These signs can be different for each person and can change between attacks. Some early warning signs may be noticed only by the individual experiencing them, while other early warning signs are more likely to be noticed by others. In addition, a downward trend in peak flow numbers can be a reliable early warning sign. Some examples of early warning signs are below:

  • Breathing changes
  • Signs of viral illness or allergies (sneezing, runny/stuffy nose, headache, dark circles under eyes, ear/throat itching) since viruses and allergies are common triggers for asthma attacks.
  • Moodiness
  • Coughing
  • Feeling tired
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Poor tolerance for exercise
  • Downward trend in peak flow number

Asthma Attack Symptoms

Asthma symptoms can indicate that an asthma attack is occurring. Changes have taken place in the airways, and airflow is obstructed. People with asthma should take action to treat these symptoms before they become worse. Talk with your health care provider about having a written asthma action plan. Examples of asthma symptoms include:

  • 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)

Severe Asthma Attack Symptoms

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. Examples of severe asthma symptoms include:

  • Severe coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath or tightness in the chest
  • Difficulty talking or concentrating
  • New shortness of breath even while walking
  • Breathing that is shallow and fast or that is slower than usual
  • Hunched shoulders (posturing)
  • Nasal flaring (nostril size increasing with breathing)
  • Inward movement of the neck and the area between or below the ribs with breathing (retractions)
  • Gray or bluish tint to skin, beginning around the mouth (cyanosis)
  • Peak flow numbers in the danger zone (usually below 50% of personal best). You can learn more about the importance of peak flow monitoring here.

For more than 100 years, National Jewish Health has been committed to finding new treatments and cures for diseases. Search our clinical trials.