Physical Effects of Asthma

Having asthma can affect a person in many ways. Physical effects can range from the somewhat annoying (an occasional cough) all the way to the life-threatening (not being able to breathe). The frequency and seriousness of asthma symptoms depends on the overall severity of the asthma and how well it is controlled.

Whether your asthma causes mild or severe symptoms, it's essential to have an asthma management plan in place. The asthma doctors at UI Health can help. We'll take the time to understand your symptoms and gauge the severity of your asthma. Then we'll work with you to put together a plan that will address the physical effects asthma is having on your body.

Physical Symptoms of Asthma

Asthma symptoms and severity vary substantially from person to person. Most people with asthma do not have symptoms constantly. Bothersome asthma symptoms can mean that asthma is not controlled sufficiently or that an acute asthma episode may be starting. Common asthma symptoms include:

  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Shortness of breath
  • Awakening in the night from coughing or wheezing

If you do not have asthma, you can help yourself imagine what it feels like to have an asthma episode:

  1. Run in place for a minute or two, until you can feel your heart start to beat fast. Take a plastic drinking straw and put it in your mouth. Hold your nose closed and continue to breathe through the straw. OR
  2. Take a deep breath in and hold it a moment. Now let out about a tenth of the air in your lungs. Breathe back in. Breathe out that same small amount of air. Breathe back in. Repeat until you can't stand it anymore.

Asthma Symptoms in Children

Children are not always able to express in words that their asthma symptoms are worsening. They may have noticeable coughing and wheezing, but these are not always the first indications of breathing distress. Different children show asthma trouble in different ways.

Some possible indications of the beginning of an asthma episode include:

  • Unusual tiredness or restlessness
  • Trouble sitting still
  • Crankiness
  • Looking worried or scared
  • Pale, sweaty skin
  • Fast breathing
  • Slouching Over

Levels of Asthma Severity

Just as we do not yet know exactly what causes asthma, we do not know why the disease is mild in some people and very severe in others. National guidelines classify asthma severity into four levels:

Mild Intermittent Asthma

  • Wheeze or cough 2 or fewer times per week
  • Symptoms at night 2 or fewer times Per month

Mild Persistent Asthma

  • Wheeze or cough 3–6 times per week
  • Symptoms at night 3–4 times per month
  • Increased symptoms with activity

Moderate Persistent Asthma

  • Daily symptoms
  • Daily inhaled beta2-agonist (bronchodilator) medication use
  • Symptoms at night 5 or more times per month
  • Decreased exercise capacity

Severe Persistent

  • Continual symptoms limiting activity
  • Frequent exacerbations
  • Frequent symptoms at night

Asthma Management Can Help

A single individual's asthma does not necessarily remain in the same category permanently. A person with seasonal asthma triggers may find that at a certain time of year — for instance, when ragweed pollen is in the air — he or she is in a higher severity group than during the rest of the year.

Asthma that starts during childhood also may become less severe as a person grows and his or her airways become wider. For any person with asthma, effective ongoing asthma control can help them move into a less severe category.

The asthma experts at UI Health can help you bring your asthma under control. To request an appointment, please fill out the online form or call 312.996.3300.