Feeling Short of Breath? You May Have Asthma

Testing can tell whether it's asthma or something else

woman with hand over throat

If you think that you may have asthma, it’s a good idea to schedule a medical appointment. Your doctor can easily test you so that you know for sure.

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A lingering cold, persistent cough, or shortness of breath can all be signs of asthma,  a common condition that can develop in children or adults.

“Asthma is one of those things where people often think you have to wheeze or be very sick,” says Sumita Khatri, MD, a pulmonologist who specializes in asthma. “But it can be as simple as becoming a little bit breathless when you try to exercise or exert yourself.”

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What is asthma?

Asthma is a disease of the lungs in which the airways are inflamed, causing the breathing tubes to become blocked or narrowed, resulting in difficulty in breathing.

If you have asthma, your lungs are  more susceptible to irritation or inflammation. Certain triggers or exposures such as allergies, cigarette smoke or seasonal changes in temperature will create congestion, mucous and narrowing of your airways. That causes the basic symptoms of asthma: chest tightness, coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath.

The signs of asthma aren’t always consistent, though, Dr. Khatri says.

“Asthma usually happens in episodes. Someone might be doing  well, and then when they catch a cold or are exposed to an irritant or allergies, cough or chest tightness might linger and not quite  go away,” she says. “Someone like that also can be more sensitive to the triggers such as perfumes, changes in weather or humidity, cigarette smoke and so on.”

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Best to get tested

If you have any of those symptoms on a regular basis, ask your doctor for diagnostic testing, including breathing tests.

Asthma is a little bit different for each person, Dr. Khatri explains. So learning what to watch for, what to avoid and how to manage your individual symptoms is very important.

There is also a genetic component to asthma. If the condition runs in your family, you are more likely to have asthma. However, it’s not necessary to have asthma in your family to develop it.

Mimicking asthma

Shortness of breath also is a symptom for people with heart conditions, allergies, acid reflux or sinus disease, Dr. Khatri says.

People with asthma can develop another condition known as paradoxical vocal fold motion disorder. The condition causes spasms in your throat muscles that make it difficult to get a breath in.

Dr. Khatri says that’s often related to reflux or an involuntary closing of the throat when you  inhale.

“That’s why it’s always good to have a confirmation that you have asthma to make sure it’s not another condition,” she says. “Also, people want to know what their medical issue is, so they can do something about it.”

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Managing severe asthma

All patients with asthma need an evaluation. Your doctor will ask about the frequency of your symptoms and how much it interferes with your daily life. Your doctor also will test your breathing. Some people may need daily medications or inhalers.

A small number of patients with severe asthma may have symptoms even when they take all of their medications.

“Asthma can seriously interfere with someone’s life, and make something that should be natural — breathing — difficult,” Dr. Khatri says. “But early diagnosis and treatment can alleviate many of the symptoms.” 

So don’t hesitate to seek the attention you need to feel better,” Dr. Khatri says.

“Our goal is to make a diagnosis and achieve control of your symptoms early so that you have a chance to get better more quickly,” she says.

If you require medications, she adds, your doctor will continue to monitor and adjust the amount, depending on how you respond to them.


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