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What are the signs and symptoms of asthma?
The classic signs and symptoms of asthma are shortness of breath, cough (often worse at night), and wheezing (high-pitched whistling sound produced by turbulent airflow through narrow airways, typically with exhalation). Many patients also report chest tightness. It is important to note that these symptoms are episodic, and individuals with asthma can go long periods of time without any symptoms.
Common triggers for asthmatic symptoms include exposure to allergens (pets, dust mites, cockroach, molds, and pollens), exercise, and viral infections. Tobacco use or exposure to secondhand smoke complicates asthma management.
Many of the symptoms of asthma are nonspecific and can be seen in other conditions as well. Symptoms that might suggest conditions other than asthma include new symptom onset in older age, the presence of associated symptoms (such as chest discomfort, lightheadedness, palpitations, and fatigue), and lack of response to appropriate medications for asthma.
The physical exam in asthma is often completely normal. Occasionally, wheezing is present. In an asthma exacerbation, the respiratory rate increases, the heart rate increases, and the work of respiration increases. Individuals often require accessory muscles to breathe, and breath sounds can be diminished. It is important to note that the blood oxygen level typically remains fairly normal even in the midst of a significant asthma exacerbation. Low blood oxygen level is therefore concerning for impending respiratory failure.