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Asthma

Early signs and symptoms of asthma

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.
 

Alastair got very breathless during cross country running at school.

Alastair got very breathless during cross country running at school.

Age at interview: 31
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 10
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I think we did, we did a run sort of once a week at school, a sort of cross country run for sports, and I could keep up with everyone until a certain period when I started having problems breathing. I didn’t obviously have a clue what it was. I think there was another kid in my class that did have asthma, but his appeared completely different. It was a case of he’d have asthma attacks. Obviously I didn’t get those so I had no sort of knowledge that’s what it was. But I do remember sitting with the doctor and my parents and the doctor telling my Mum well it looks as if he’s got asthma and you know, describing the medication.
 

Ann had liked singing along with the radio in the car, but one day she became so short of breath she couldn’t sing.

Ann had liked singing along with the radio in the car, but one day she became so short of breath she couldn’t sing.

Age at interview: 55
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 53
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I was working about 25 miles away from home, and I used to... come out of work in the evening, get into my car, turn the radio on, find a pop station, and I’d be singing along to the music all the way home. But on this one particular day I found that I just couldn’t sing, and I was very, very short of breath, and it was a very new experience for me, that hadn’t really happened to me before, so I thought to myself, ok.... I don’t like this very much but let’s just see what happens in the morning. And because my husband works away from home most of the time on that particular day and evening I was at home by myself, but on that particular day I was preparing for the move. 

But the following morning when I woke up in the morning to go to work I was really short of breath and I was really scared. I’d never had that experience before, so I rang my work and said I wouldn’t be coming in, I rang my GP surgery and made an appointment
 

Jane had trained for and successfully run a 5 km race, but when she went out for a run some weeks later she had to stop after a short time. She felt ‘as if her batteries had run out’.

Jane had trained for and successfully run a 5 km race, but when she went out for a run some weeks later she had to stop after a short time. She felt ‘as if her batteries had run out’.

Age at interview: 59
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 54
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When I was 54 I’d decided that I wanted to get fit at Christmas 2004 I made the decision I wanted to get fit and I took up running. I had a personal trainer and our goal was for me to be able to run the Race for Life which was in May of that year for, for just five kilometres. But for somebody who’d never done any running it was quite a big goal. So I went training. I lost quite a lot of weight by doing that as well and I felt really fit. And I did the Race for Life and I ran the five kilometres in 26 minutes and I was very pleased with myself. And almost the next day we flew out to Morocco on holiday and spent 10 days trekking in the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco. And while we were doing that the leader of the group we were with said that we would find when we got home that we would feel really fit because being at altitude meant that we would have more red blood corpuscles in our blood stream. So I came home full of enthusiasm and put my running shoes on after we got home, went out for a run and I just couldn’t do it. I probably ran between half a mile and a mile and then I just felt like my batteries had run out.

And I couldn’t understand this because although I hadn’t been running for a fortnight while we’d been in Morocco I had been taking exercise and the leader had made this comment about being extra fit when we got back.

So if I persevere, so every morning I would put my running shoes on and go out for a run it just didn’t seem to get any better. So I contacted the person who’d help me train to run the Race for Life and arranged to go out for a run with her. And we went for a run together and the same thing happened and the only way I can describe is that I just felt as if my batteries had run out. I didn’t feel that I was, well I was obviously breathless because I’d been running but I didn’t feel that I was more breathless than I should have been, no other than usual. I just felt like I couldn’t, couldn’t run another step.

And so I stopped and I said to her, “This is what I’ve been talking about, this is what I mean.”  And she said, “But listen to yourself, you sound like you’re having an asthma attack.” So I rang my GP went back to the gym with her and rang my GP on my mobile phone from there and he said, “You’d better get yourself up here straight away”. So I went up to see him and he listened to my chest and my breathing and said, “Yes, I think this is asthma”. And that was a big shock.
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.
 

Stephen felt breathless and tired even when he wasn’t doing exercise.

Stephen felt breathless and tired even when he wasn’t doing exercise.

Age at interview: 25
Sex: Male
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The typical tell tale signs were, as I say, short of breath in the afternoons, even in the evenings where I wasn’t exercising and so that was my main concern. I wasn’t doing anything and was finding myself out of breath from just sitting down after a day’s work and that was worrying me because I’m still only twenty five.
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.
 

Riina was coughing a lot during the night and finding it difficult to sleep. She tried her dad’s inhaler to see if it worked.

Riina was coughing a lot during the night and finding it difficult to sleep. She tried her dad’s inhaler to see if it worked.

Age at interview: 22
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 12
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I was like at school away for like, for the week at the time, so it was only like during the weekends I was at home.

And well my mum noticed initially that I was sort of coughing a lot during the night and I couldn’t really sleep. And so, well my Dad has asthma as well. So she kind of noticed it and she like, I don’t know, initially she just gave me some of what my Dad had like the inhaler and so on. And like to see if it works. And so it was like, and then they figured out I must have had asthma

And had you found that you were experiencing those symptoms when you were at school?

May be, but I hadn’t like, I hadn’t thought, I hadn’t associated it with asthma. It was like my Mum noticed it because she knew obviously what kind of the symptoms my Dad had.
 

Julie’s asthma was diagnosed in her 40s after a persistent cough. Until then she had thought of asthma as something children had and could grow out of.

Julie’s asthma was diagnosed in her 40s after a persistent cough. Until then she had thought of asthma as something children had and could grow out of.

Age at interview: 68
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 40
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Well I’d, I had a... I went on coughing after a cold. I had a cold and this cough just didn’t seem to go away and it was really hard coughing. It was painful in my chest and I gradually got to the point where my, I was getting breathless and I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t get about. I mean, just walking a few paces I [draws in breath] heaving for breath.

How long ago was that?

This was 1982… and asthma wasn’t in my consciousness because I thought it was something children had and grew out of at that stage, I’d never heard of asthma appearing in your life when you were 40.

The next time I got a cold, similar coughing. I thought, “Oh dear, this is sort of with me,” you know. Not knowing anything about asthma I didn’t know it was a condition that was there for good. I didn’t know what was going to happen. So I think we moved that year, was it that year? It was either that year or the next year, we moved to [place] so change of doctor’s, change of lifestyle slightly because I was starting to commute and working in London. And I got very bad cold and I was given, I think, antibiotics for the cough and that didn’t really get rid of it. 
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.
 

Charles saw his GP about a chest infection and recurring wheeziness and was diagnosed with asthma. He was given salbutamol (Ventolin) to inhale, which improved the symptoms. [Text only]

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Charles saw his GP about a chest infection and recurring wheeziness and was diagnosed with asthma. He was given salbutamol (Ventolin) to inhale, which improved the symptoms. [Text only]

Age at interview: 71
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 40
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In about 1980 I was suffering from wheezing, wheezing problems and they were probably brought on more by colds and just occurring sort of naturally without anything to prompt them. And I think I went to a doctor for treatment for some chest complaint and he did a volume analysis of my lung as a part of a routine inspection and diagnosed that I’d got asthma, or he felt I’d got asthma. And he suggested that I should initially take some Ventolin as it was then termed and see how it went, and if that worked then to put me on a more permanent treatment.

And I did it, and it did work and it removed the discomfort I had. The, what we were talking about as asthma, it wasn’t to me apparent as asthma at the time, because it didn’t stop me or inhibit me from doing anything. And, I was more a discomfort, especially at night when you’re sleeping or lying down. And rather than being a painful experience at any stage.
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.
 

Eve remembers when she was a child living in Los Angeles that she would often feel tightness in the chest when the air was polluted. [AUDIO ONLY]

Eve remembers when she was a child living in Los Angeles that she would often feel tightness in the chest when the air was polluted. [AUDIO ONLY]

Age at interview: 54
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 36
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But the thing is, when I look back now, I think I may have had mild asthma before then, because when I was a young child I went to a school for…. Okay I lived in Southern California and I went to a school for the blind in Hollywood of all places, and of course LA which we had to go through, was very smoggy at the time. It probably still is. And sometimes the inversion layer, how far the stuff in the air could rise to where it could get away from, get away was so low [musical noise] that my Mother wouldn’t even let me go to school.

And even on days when it was a bit higher and I could go to school, there were days I came back and my chest was tight. But I didn’t know that that was what, what the feeling was until now when, now that I have asthma and I know a tight chest feels like, I know that’s what I was feeling as a child, but I didn’t know what that was then. I just remember feeling it. And I recognised that’s what it was.
Belinda’s parents both smoked and when she was a child in the 1960s the dangers of passive smoking were little known.
 

Belinda attended a boarding school because of her asthma, but every time she returned home in the holidays her asthma got worse because her parents smoked in the house. [TEXT ONLY]

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Belinda attended a boarding school because of her asthma, but every time she returned home in the holidays her asthma got worse because her parents smoked in the house. [TEXT ONLY]

Age at interview: 53
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 1
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When I was about five the doctors at the time, I think it was in the [hospital name], suggested that for the sake of my health it would be a good idea for me to go down to, for the family to move to the coast. So we all moved down the coast.

The problem was that my parents came too [laughs] and they were smokers, and it was the smoke that was making me ill. . It was very clear quickly no clear but I was still very, very sick, and although I went to an infant school I was in hospital a lot of the time in [place]. So the doctors at the time sent me to a boarding school for asthmatics. This was called [name of school] I stayed in [place], boarding schools until I was 13 or so. I would come home for the holidays, my parents would smoke and then, I’d go to hospital for the holidays

Were your parents or people at that time probably maybe might not have been quite so aware of the effects of smoking or would you… think they were?

I would say they were. I don’t think they will ever watch this, so I can say that there was a lot of ignorance, even though there was an exhibit in the room of a child who could not breathe, and yet they would smoke and blow the smoke in the opposite direction to the child. Now you know that still goes on now, you see it in the street. And although parents or some people say, “Oh no, we don’t’ smoke at, at home, we smoke outside”, well, the kid’s still there… in the vicinity. My parents, hmm. My parents were very, they cared a great deal for me, but not enough to give up smoking. 
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.
 

Other members of Stephen’s family have asthma so he wasn’t too surprised be told he had it. His mum thought he may have been asthmatic as a child and took him to the doctors several times but he wasn’t diagnosed until recently.

Other members of Stephen’s family have asthma so he wasn’t too surprised be told he had it. His mum thought he may have been asthmatic as a child and took him to the doctors several times but he wasn’t diagnosed until recently.

Age at interview: 25
Sex: Male
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Well, to be honest, part of me wasn’t surprised because there’s actually a history within the family. My mother has asthma and on my father’s side of the family I have an aunt and an uncle who have a particular lung disease. I’m not sure of the correct name. So I wasn’t particularly surprised. So half expecting it that way.

And my mum was actually always paranoid when I was a kid she would drive me to the doctor once or twice thinking, “He has asthma. He has asthma.” So but the doctor always turned me away.

Right and do you think, I mean what do you think led her to believe that you might have had asthma when you were a child?

I don’t know. To, I was a typical boy, out playing football until it was dark, come in clean wrecked. To me that was just playing football for four hours and it was time for bed. Mum noticed there was something wrong. I don’t know. I was just a kid.

And do you think that maybe she was right?

Then, no, I wouldn’t. As I say, I was a kid and I was giving out to her, you know, “What are you taking me to the doctors for? I’m fine.” That was the attitude I had. For all it, as it turns out, she probably was right. I don’t know.
(Also see ‘Triggers’, ‘Childhood onset’, ‘Being diagnosed with asthma’, ‘Exercise, diet, weight and other lifestyle issues’ and ‘Relationships, family and friends’).

Last reviewed August 2017.
 
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