Early signs and symptoms

Some people we talked to said their asthma had been diagnosed at an early age and they couldn’t remember their first symptoms. However, many could recall the first time they noticed symptoms that were later attributed to asthma, whether this happened recently or some time ago. Most commonly they had felt unusually breathless, with wheezing, tightness in the chest, or a persistent cough. Symptoms might also develop in response to certain triggers, for example when near animals, or cigarette smoke.

Often people diagnosed with asthma had noticed that things weren’t quite right after being out walking or exertion of some kind. Eve was in her 30s and was out for a long walk with some friends one weekend when she found herself becoming so breathless that she couldn’t continue on the walk. Alastair’s asthma was diagnosed when he found it difficult to take part in a run at the age of 10.
Stephen had joined a football team to improve his fitness; he found that after returning home from jogging that he would lie on his bed and his chest would feel very tight. Alice also recalls getting breathless when she had been on a mountain walk as a young woman. Many in whom signs and symptoms of asthma had appeared as adults had been surprised because they had regarded themselves as active, fit and healthy.

Some people can start to feel breathless even when they have not been taking exercise or doing something very physical. Charles hadn’t at first associated feeling breathless with asthma but sometimes he had mild feelings of a tight chest and breathlessness when he was lying in bed. Other people also noted difficult breathing and feeling tight chested at night.
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For some people the first sign of something wrong was a persistent cough – often after a cold or chest infection - that was difficult to shift with over the counter remedies or antibiotics. Gail was in her 40’s when she developed a cough that she couldn’t shake off. Peter had likewise developed a bad cough and cold that just didn’t go away; eventually he went to the doctor who diagnosed asthma.
Some people get temporary wheezing or breathlessness whenever they have a cold or chest infection. When Charles went to the doctor about a chest complaint it hadn’t occurred to him that he might have asthma.
Tim feels now that he probably had mild asthma as a child, as he remembers often having a tight chest and breathing difficulties after sports or in the pollen season, but he assumed everyone felt like that. His asthma wasn’t diagnosed until he was adult. Similarly, Gail’s asthma was diagnosed in her 40s but she remembers having coughs and colds frequently as a child; her mother used to treat them with over the counter or home remedies and she too feels looking back that she probably had mild asthma.

People often either remembered, or had realised later, that the early signs and symptoms of their asthma may have been brought on by a reaction to something in their environment, e.g. chemical sprays and smells, pollen, dust, being in a smoky atmosphere or being around animals. Eve was not diagnosed until later in life, but now looking back to her childhood thinks she may have had asthma that had not been recognised.
Belinda’s parents both smoked and when she was a child in the 1960s the dangers of passive smoking were little known.
Jan’s asthma was diagnosed when she was 4; her parents have told her that the first attack was triggered by contact with a pet rabbit. Mark’s symptoms came on quite suddenly when he was a child and he had to be rushed to hospital; other people had noticed a gradual onset or worsening of symptoms over a while rather than an asthma ‘attack’.

People with a family history of asthma may be more likely to develop it. Sometimes other family members with asthma suspected what was wrong first.
(Also see ‘Triggers’, ‘Childhood onset’, ‘Being diagnosed with asthma’, ‘Exercise, diet, weight and other lifestyle issues’ and ‘Relationships, family and friends’).


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