Asthma is a form of chronic inflammatory condition that affects the airways to the lungs. Asthma impacts your ability to breathe and is typically triggered by a combination of hereditary and environmental factors. Symptoms of asthma tend to vary, and in some cases, it is barely noticeable, while in others, it can be severe or even life-threatening. Living with a chronic condition like asthma means you have to manage your symptoms and may experience flare-ups of the condition now and then. The most common asthma symptoms include coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and tightness in the chest. However, sometimes you may also experience additional symptoms that may be unusual. While unusual asthma symptoms do not necessarily mean something severe is going on, they might be an indication that you are about to have an asthma attack, or your treatment may need some tweaking. Here’s what you should know about unusual asthma symptoms.
What are the Usual Symptoms of Asthma?
Asthma affects different people in different ways. While on most days, you are unlikely to experience any symptoms at all, but whenever you are exposed to a trigger, it might lead to a flare-up of your symptoms.(1,2) This is because the airways of a person with asthma tend to be hypersensitive, meaning they are chronically inflamed.(3) This is always some minor amount of airway inflammation present in people who have asthma. This is what makes the airways hypersensitive to the slightest of triggers. On days when you are not exposed to any asthma triggers, your airways remain open, and you can breathe normally.(4,5) However, when exposed to the asthma triggers, the hypersensitive airways of the lungs immediately over-react, causing the underlying inflammation of the airways to worsen. This causes you to experience the symptoms of asthma and is known as an asthma attack.(6)
Some of the usual symptoms of asthma include:
Unusual Symptoms of Asthma: What You Need to Know
However, you may sometimes also experience some unusual symptoms. Experiencing such unusual symptoms is not a rare phenomenon.
Experiencing unusual symptoms of asthma may indicate that you are about to experience a flare-up of your symptoms, or it could also mean your treatment is going well. Here are some of the unusual asthma symptoms you may experience and what they may indicate.
Persistent Dry Cough
When you have an asthma attack or a flare-up of your symptoms, you may experience a wet, wheezy cough. In fact, coughing is one of the most common symptoms in more than 50% of people with asthma.(7) Some people also experience a constant or lingering cough after recovering from a cold or some other illness that had made the asthma symptoms worse.
While a lingering cough is considered to be normal, having only a dry and persistent cough is considered to be an unusual symptom in cases of traditional asthma. This may be a sign that you actually have a subtype of asthma known as cough-variant asthma, in which you experience a chronic, constant cough without excess mucus.(8,9) Such type of cough is also known as an unproductive cough. If you suddenly start experiencing this type of cough, it is recommended that you bring it to your doctor’s notice at the earliest.
Having difficulty sleeping is typically experienced by people whose asthma is not correctly managed. It is possible to experience sleep difficulties such as insomnia.
Even in people without asthma, the airway function naturally goes down when you sleep. This is even more pronounced in people who have asthma. And if you have severe asthma and your treatment is not successful in managing your symptoms well, you may find that the usual symptoms of asthma, such as coughing, tend to worsen at night when you are trying to sleep.
If you find yourself experiencing asthma symptoms such as coughing exclusively at night, you might be having a subtype of asthma known as nocturnal asthma.(10,11)
To decrease the risk of experiencing nighttime asthma symptoms, it is necessary to ensure that there are no triggers inside your bedroom or sleeping area. This includes:
- Animal dander
- Dust mites
- Extreme cold temperatures
You should also discuss with your doctor about taking certain medications that can help decrease the inflammation of your airways, such as leukotriene modifiers and inhaled corticosteroids.(12,13)
Quick Breathing and Sighing
Shortness of breath is a conventional symptom of asthma. It happens due to the constriction of the airway during an asthma attack. However, quick breathing or taking quick breaths is an unusual asthma symptom, and it occurs as you try to get in more oxygen into your lungs.
You may also find that you are continually yawning or sighing. These are also a form of rapid breathing itself, and most people don’t even realize they are doing it. Sighing may also happen due to anxiety or stress, but in some cases, it can be a sign of asthma as well.
If your asthma symptoms are making it difficult for you to sleep properly in the night, then this may manifest in the form of daytime fatigue as a result. Having a chronic and persistent cough is also likely to make you feel tired since the constant coughing spells will use up your energy.
In such conditions, you may find yourself experiencing fatigue as your body is working overtime to breathe in more oxygen through the inflamed and constricted airways.
Itchy Throat and Face
Many people with asthma experience an unusual symptom in the form of an itchy face and throat, apart from the typical symptoms of coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath. However, these itchy sensations are not due to asthma itself. These are believed to be caused by allergies. If there are any allergens that act as a trigger for your asthma flare-ups, then you may be having a type of asthma known as allergic asthma.(14,15)
People with allergic asthma may also experience many of the usual asthma symptoms, as well as the following symptoms:
The most effective way of reducing this type of itchiness and other symptoms of allergic asthma is to reduce your contact with your known allergy triggers. Some of the common triggers include:
- Dust mites
- Animal dander
- Foods such as milk, nuts, and seafood
- Cigarette smoke
Getting regular allergy shots is also a useful tool for avoiding a flare-up of allergic asthma.
There is no cure for asthma, but it is possible to prevent a severe asthma attack or flare-up by actively managing your condition. This not only includes taking your medications as prescribed by your doctor but also avoiding the known triggers as much as possible. Sometimes you may experience some unusual asthma symptoms that go beyond regular coughing, shortness of breath, and wheezing. However, while it is normal to experience unusual symptoms once in a while, it is still important to watch out for any unusual symptoms and report them to your doctor. It is essential to be aware that an onset of unusual symptoms could be early warning signs of an impending asthma attack or a flare-up. If these unusual asthma symptoms keep persisting, it is a good idea to schedule an appointment with your doctor, as this might indicate that it is time to change your current treatment routine.
- MacDowell, A.L. and Bacharier, L.B., 2005. Infectious triggers of asthma. Immunology and Allergy Clinics, 25(1), pp.45-66.
- Bousquet, J., Chanez, P., Lacoste, J.Y., Barnéon, G., Ghavanian, N., Enander, I., Venge, P., Ahlstedt, S., Simony-Lafontaine, J., Godard, P. and Michel, F.B., 1990. Eosinophilic inflammation in asthma. New England Journal of Medicine, 323(15), pp.1033-1039.
- Busse, W.W., Calhoun, W.F. and Sedgwick, J.D., 1993. Mechanisms of airway inflammation in asthma. American Review of Respiratory Disease, 147, pp.S20-S20.
- Fahy, J.V., Corry, D.B. and Boushey, H.A., 2000. Airway inflammation and remodeling in asthma. Current opinion in pulmonary medicine, 6(1), pp.15-20.
- Tulic, M.K., Christodoulopoulos, P. and Hamid, Q., 2001. Small airway inflammation in asthma. Respiratory research, 2(6), p.333.
- Pearce, N., Aït-Khaled, N., Beasley, R., Mallol, J., Keil, U., Mitchell, E. and Robertson, C., 2007. Worldwide trends in the prevalence of asthma symptoms: phase III of the International Study of Asthma and Allergies in Childhood (ISAAC). Thorax, 62(9), pp.758-766.
- Morjaria, J.B. and Kastelik, J.A., 2011. Unusual asthma syndromes and their management. Therapeutic advances in chronic disease, 2(4), pp.249-264.
- Fujimura, M., Ogawa, H., Nishizawa, Y. and Nishi, K., 2003. Comparison of atopic cough with cough variant asthma: is atopic cough a precursor of asthma?. Thorax, 58(1), pp.14-18.
- Johnson, D. and Osborn, L.M., 1991. Cough variant asthma: a review of the clinical literature. Journal of Asthma, 28(2), pp.85-90.
- Martin, R.J., Cicutto, L.C., Smith, H.R., Ballard, R.D. and Szefler, S.J., 1991. Airways inflammation in nocturnal asthma. American Review of Respiratory Disease, 143(2), pp.351-357.
- Turner-Warwick, M., 1988. Epidemiology of nocturnal asthma. The American journal of medicine, 85(1), pp.6-8.
- Lemanske Jr, R.F., Mauger, D.T., Sorkness, C.A., Jackson, D.J., Boehmer, S.J., Martinez, F.D., Strunk, R.C., Szefler, S.J., Zeiger, R.S., Bacharier, L.B. and Covar, R.A., 2010. Step-up therapy for children with uncontrolled asthma receiving inhaled corticosteroids. New England Journal of Medicine, 362(11), pp.975-985.
- Kemp, J.P., 2003. Recent advances in the management of asthma using leukotriene modifiers. American journal of respiratory medicine, 2(2), pp.139-156.
- Crimi, E., Spanevello, A., Neri, M., Ind, P.W., Rossi, G.A. and Brusasco, V., 1998. Dissociation between airway inflammation and airway hyperresponsiveness in allergic asthma. American journal of respiratory and critical care medicine, 157(1), pp.4-9.
- Cockcroft, D.W., 1983. Mechanism of perennial allergic asthma. The Lancet, 322(8344), pp.253-256.
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