Q: How do I know if I might have asthma?
A: The small airways in your lungs both swell up and become smaller when an asthma attack strikes. This leads to increased mucus production and decreased flow of the air in the lungs. Wheezing, shortness of breath, and coughing result. In mild cases, these symptoms may be mild and infrequent. If your case is moderate or severe, they may come often.
You should ask your doctor whether you may have asthma if you cough after exercise or after exposure to cold winter air. If you commonly have a cough that persists for more than 2 weeks after a common cold, you may have a mild form of asthma. Likewise, you may have asthma if you wheeze or cough after exposure to dust, animal hair, cigarette smoke, or pollen.
If you experience shortness of breath unrelated to extreme exertion, you should contact your doctor. This requires prompt medical evaluation, because there are many serious causes for shortness of breath other than asthma.
Asthma may develop for the first time at any age, even in people in their 60s or 70s. At older ages, however, patients and their physicians must carefully consider the possibility of other explanations for cough, shortness of breath, or wheezing. These include cardiac disease, chronic lung diseases (such as emphysema), anemia, respiratory infection, and cancer.
This information, prepared by physicians at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), Harvard Medical School, is not medical advice and should not replace consultation with your doctor. Staff at BIDMC provide Ask an Expert responses to consumers for educational purposes only. Always consult your own doctor about any opinions or recommendations with respect to your symptoms or medical condition.