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While asthma symptoms seem straightforward—coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath—it’s not always easy for doctors to definitively diagnose the condition. It can be hard to determine if a chronic cough is asthma, a lingering respiratory ailment, or something else. Symptoms like wheezing can come and go, or coughing may only occur at specific times, such as at night or with exposure to pollen or other triggers.

To learn more about the symptoms of asthma in children, check out the following information from our A–Z Health Library. Asthma symptoms in adults are very similar to those in children.

Symptoms of asthma can be mild or severe. Your child may have no symptoms; severe, daily symptoms; or something in between. How often your child has symptoms can also change. Symptoms of asthma may include:

  • Wheezing, a whistling noise of varying loudness that occurs when the airways of the lungs (bronchial tubes Click here to see an illustration.) narrow.
  • Coughing, which is the only symptom for some children.
  • Chest tightness.
  • Shortness of breath, which is rapid, shallow breathing or difficulty breathing.
  • Sleep disturbance.
  • Tiring quickly during exercise.

If your child has only one or two of these symptoms, it does not necessarily mean he or she has asthma. The more of these symptoms your child has, the more likely it is that he or she has asthma.

An asthma attack occurs when your child’s symptoms suddenly increase. Factors that can lead to an asthma attack or make one worse include:

Most asthma attacks result from a failure to successfully control asthma with medicines. By strictly following the doctor’s recommendations and taking all medicines correctly, it is possible in most cases to prevent these attacks from occurring. While some asthma attacks occur very suddenly, many get worse gradually over a period of several days.

Many children have symptoms that become worse at night (nocturnal asthma). In all people, lung function changes throughout the day and night. In children with asthma, this often is very noticeable, especially at night, and nighttime cough and shortness of breath occur frequently. In general, waking at night because of shortness of breath or cough indicates poorly controlled asthma.

It can be difficult to know how severe your child’s asthma attack is. Symptoms are used to classify asthma by severity. Talk with your doctor about how to evaluate your child’s symptoms.

Symptoms are also used along with peak expiratory flow to help define the green, yellow, and red zones of your child’s asthma action plan. You use this to decide on treatment during an asthma attack.

Other conditions with symptoms similar to asthma include sinusitis and vocal cord dysfunction.