Asthma | Symptoms


Learn More About Asthma Symptoms

What Happens During an Asthma Flare-up

What is an asthma attack?

An asthma attack occurs when excess mucus causes your air tubes to swell and tighten. Asthma attacks can be mild, moderate or severe. Symptoms of an asthma attack include the following:

  • Coughing
  • Feeling breathless
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Wheezing (breathing that makes a hoarse, squeaky, musical or whistling sound)
  • Cough with mucus
  • Wheezing or whistling sound when breathing
  • Difficulty breathing and talking
  • Trouble sleeping

Signs of an emergency

Call your doctor or seek emergency care right away if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Your rescue medicine doesn't relieve your symptoms.
  • Your peak flow keeps dropping after treatment or falls below 50% of your best.
  • Your fingernails or lips turn gray or blue.
  • You have trouble walking or talking.
  • You have extreme difficulty breathing.
  • Your neck, chest or ribs are pulled in with each breath.
  • Your nostrils flare when you breathe.
  • Your heartbeat or pulse is very fast

How can I tell if an asthma attack is serious?

You should use (or have your child use) a peak flow meter every day. A peak flow meter measures how much air flows out of your lungs. People who have asthma have lower air flow in and out of their lungs than other people. Measuring peak flow levels can help you see problems with your air flow before you have any symptoms of asthma.

A meter can also help tell you and your doctor how serious your asthma attacks are. You'll be able to see when you should take medicine or when you need emergency care. Peak flow readings may also help you find the triggers that make your asthma symptoms worse.

How can I tell if my asthma is getting worse?

Signs that your asthma is getting worse include having symptoms at night, a drop in your peak flow and the need to use your rescue medicine more often. Talk to your doctor if you think that your asthma is getting worse.

Some information adapted from "What you and your family can do about asthma," a patient information booklet published by the Global Initiative for Asthma, a joint effort of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and the World Health Organization. This and other publications are available through the Internet (

Written by editorial staff

Reviewed/Updated: 04/14
Created: 03/05

Learn More About Asthma Symptoms

What Happens During an Asthma Flare-up