Coughing and Wheezing: Is It Asthma?

Everyone coughs and wheezes with a cold, however, if you have trouble breathing when you don’t have other symptoms, you might have asthma.

Asthma is inflammation of the airways. It can cause your air passages to swell and narrow or become clogged with mucus. This makes it hard to breathe. You cough trying to clear your airway, but the wheezing just won’t go away. Asthma is a chronic condition – once you get it, it seldom goes away.

It’s a pretty common chronic health problem. About 8% of Americans have asthma. If you live in Wisconsin, your odds are even higher. About 12% of adults and 11% of children in the state have asthma.

Wherever you live, the number of people with asthma is rising. So take a few minutes to learn about asthma, its symptoms and what to do if you think you might have it.

Symptoms

You can start having asthma symptoms at any age. They’re different for everyone, but the most common ones are:

  • Chronic (regular, ongoing) cough – especially at night
  • Wheezing or whistling when you breathe
  • Shortness of breath
  • Tightness or pressure in the chest

Sometimes symptoms come on fast and hard. Asthma can be life threatening, so get emergency treatment for shortness of breath that happens quickly or gets worse.

What Causes Asthma?

No one knows why some people’s airways react this way. Asthma seems to run in families. Environment can also play a big role.

Triggers

Some asthma has “triggers” – things that can start an episode of asthma or make it worse – like cigarette smoke. If you have asthma and can identify triggers, try to avoid them. For example, thorough housecleaning helps a lot of asthma sufferers.

Most people who have asthma also have allergies. The things they’re allergic to (allergens) are often their top triggers. Other triggers are less predictable. They can include:

  • Allergens in the air (pollen, animal dander, mold, dust mites).
  • Pollutants and irritants like smoke and chemicals.
  • Cold air.
  • Colds and other respiratory infections (including stuffy nose and sinus infection).
  • Some medications, including over-the-counter pain relievers.
  • Sulfites and preservatives in food and beverages.
  • Stress.
  • GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease—stomach acids flow upwards into the throat.

Exercise-induced Asthma

Activity also can trigger asthma. Some people only have symptoms with exercise. That’s why so many kids and athletes use inhalers to make it easier to breathe during and after exercise.

Where To Start If You Have Symptoms

If you have any of the symptoms above and they seem to last or show up often, see your health care professional. Start with your primary care provider. If you already know you have allergies, you may want to see an allergist.

They’ll take a health history and examine you to rule out other problems. They may ask you to do some simple tests to measure how much air you can blow out and how fast you can do it. There might be other tests, including allergy testing.

Treatment

Asthma treatment is really about preventing attacks. As part of treatment you’ll learn ways to:

  • Improve your overall health.
  • Avoid triggers.
  • Keep your asthma under control.
  • Watch for warning signs and measure your breathing.

Most people with asthma use medicine to prevent or manage the symptoms. There are two main classes of medications:

  • “Rescue” medications: These give quick relief from breathing problems. Even when asthma is under control, you might have an inhaler at hand just in case. If you find you need a rescue medication often, you may need to start a maintenance medication.
  • “Maintenance” medications: These help control the symptoms around the clock. There are several types of maintenance medications. If you’re prescribed any of these, it’s important to use these every single day as prescribed whether you’re having symptoms or not to keep your asthma under control and prevent flares.

Remember, asthma can be life threatening. Never delay getting treatment if symptoms get worse.

If you have a simple, short-term cough, you may find self-care appropriate.

Meet the Author

Christina G. Crumbliss, MD is a family medicine physician at Aurora Health Center in West Allis, WI.

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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