What asthma feels like

We asked people to describe how it feels getting asthma symptoms, when breathing becomes difficult. Lisa explained her ‘minor’ symptoms or low-level feelings of breathlessness were fairly quickly eased by using her inhaler. Although she felt short of breath, it wasn’t a struggle to breathe. Peter describes how low level symptoms might sometimes linger and get worse to the point where breathing became more problematic.
In contrast to low level symptoms an asthma ‘attack’ was described as more dramatic. While there are a wide variety of experiences, it is striking that many people described the feelings in similar, often very vivid, ways.

People said they felt that they couldn’t get enough air into – or out of - their lungs – as if they were ‘breathing through a straw’, or even in some cases as if ‘suffocating’, ‘choking’ or ‘drowning’. They described ‘struggling’ or ‘fighting’ for air. Stephen said it felt as though he’d lost half his lungs, as though the air is only going down half way and he’s only getting half the air that he needs. Faisil described it as like having ‘itchy lungs’ and ‘gasping for breath’. Not being able to breathe out felt as if the air had ‘nowhere to go’ or was ‘stuck’ or ‘closed off’.
The feeling of a ‘tight’ chest is a common symptom. In some cases, people said it could feel as though a person was gripping them around the chest or sitting on them and squashing them so hard they could not breathe. Catherine compared it to a heavy weight and said that it could feel very frightening. Alice said that she sometimes fears she might suffocate during an attack

For most people these symptoms can be relieved relatively quickly by using a reliever inhaler during the attack.
When breathing becomes difficult it can be difficult to move, to think clearly or to talk, even to tell other people how you are feeling or what they could do to help. Jane Z said that when you can’t breathe you can easily begin to feel confused because you are not getting enough oxygen to the brain. Christine pointed out how this can also have repercussions for friends, relatives or work colleagues if they are with you when you are going through a bad attack - "All you can think about is drawing breath, literally. It’s much more terrifying for people around you because they can’t do anything, they’ve just got to sit and watch you".
The advice for people experiencing asthma symptoms is to try not to panic, because this can make things worse. Although most people know this is a sensible and obvious strategy, in practice it can be difficult not to panic. Asthma can be a life-threatening condition in some cases, and the fear of not being able to get your breath is very powerful. In addition, as Catherine points out, in order to make the situation better you need to be able to take a deep breath in order to inhale the medication, and ‘what’s the one thing you can’t do….take a big breath in…’. Jane Y says ‘my husband is a rock’ as he helps her to stay calm by reminding her to stay calm, sit down, concentrate on breathing and not to try to talk. Some people say that using a spacer with the inhaler can make things easier when you are having an asthma attack.
As well as the physical symptoms of breathlessness, wheezing and coughing, some people spoke about asthma making them feel exhausted. This could be during symptoms, because of the effort of breathing, and people often mentioned feeling unable to move or even stand while it was happening. Or it could be more general tiredness and exhaustion.
Other people talked about a persistent cough or wheeze interrupting sleep, and creating a vicious circle where they became more and more tired. Coughing has only been recognised as a symptom of asthma in the last 20-30 years; being woken by coughing at night suggests the asthma is not well controlled. Jane Y said that she finds it helps if you have several pillows so that you are in a more elevated position for sleeping. The severity and frequency of asthma symptoms varies enormously – not everyone gets all of the symptoms and some people only experience them from time to time.
(Also see ‘Emotions and coping’, ‘Relationships, family and friends’, ‘Support and support groups’ and ‘Managing asthma – reviews and action plans’).

Last reviewed August 2017.


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