What Is An Asthma Cough?

Asthma is a relatively common condition that creates inflammation in your lungs and airways. This can make it difficult to breathe and cause chest pains. Asthma currently impacts about 25 million Americans,¹ which translates to approximately one out of every 13 people. 

One sign of asthma is what is commonly known as asthma cough. To learn more about what it is, who tends to get it, and how it is treated, take a look at our guide below. 

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What is an asthma cough?

People with asthma often experience persistent coughing due to the inflammation in their lungs and airways. Their cough may sound quite different from coughs caused by seasonal allergies or common colds. This is because asthma coughs tend to produce a whistling or wheezing sound in the chest. 

Who is at risk of getting an asthma cough?

Asthma cough, like asthma itself, can affect anyone, but some people are more likely to develop this condition and symptom than others. For example, asthma is most prevalent in Black American adults¹ and is almost three times more likely to develop in Black children than in white children.

Puerto Rican Americans² are twice as likely to have asthma than white Americans. Asthma is also more common in male than female children, but it remains the most prevalent chronic condition.

Anyone can develop asthma, though it does seem to run in families. Children born to one parent with asthma have about a 25% chance³ of developing the condition. 

Common asthma cough symptoms

While the main symptom of asthma cough is the whistling sound in the airways while coughing, other symptoms are commonly associated with it, including:

  • A persistent cough that is also non-productive (does not expel mucous)

  • Shortness of breath

  • Coughing at night

If you have already received asthma treatment, and you still find yourself reaching for your quick-relief medications more than twice a week, speak with your doctor about how to get it under better control. 

What triggers an asthma cough?

The best way to prevent asthma cough is to try to avoid what triggers it. Some of the most common asthma cough triggers include:

  • Exercise

  • Stress

  • Irritants like smoke, strong odors, or air pollution

  • Indoor allergens like mold, pet dander, and dust mites

  • Outdoor allergens like pollen 

  • Some drugs

  • Changing weather patterns

Although it's hard to avoid triggers like changing weather patterns, you can reduce your chances of triggering asthma cough by keeping stress to a minimum, performing light and mild exercise, and obtaining an air purifier to reduce indoor allergens.

Talking to your doctor about your asthma cough and taking asthma medications as prescribed can also help reduce the severity of asthma cough. 

How asthma cough is diagnosed

If you believe you have asthma and an asthma cough, you should speak with a doctor immediately. Your doctor can run several tests to determine the source of your cough, whether it is asthma or some other issue in your airways and lungs. 

To diagnose asthma and asthma cough, your doctor may give you a physical exam to listen to your breathing and look for outward signs of respiratory conditions. From there, they may order the following tests:

Chest x-ray

One of the first steps when evaluating a patient for potential asthma is to order a chest x-ray. This allows your doctor to look for signs of inflammation, wall-thickening of the bronchioles and swelling in the lungs. Other respiratory conditions can be diagnosed with a chest x-ray, such as pneumonia or bronchitis, so further tests may be necessary to narrow down a diagnosis. 

Spirometry

Spirometry is a test that involves taking in a deep breath and then exhaling into a device called a spirometer. The spirometer determines how much air you can expel and how quickly you can do it, which can tell your doctor about your lung function.

Peak flow

Peak flow tests use a peak flow meter to measure how hard you can breathe out. Those with a lower reading usually have some impairment in lung function, which can sometimes be attributed to asthma. 

Methacholine challenge

Methacholine is a chemical that can trigger asthma and cause your airways to constrict. In this test, your doctor will administer a small amount of methacholine and watch to see if you have a reaction.

If you don't produce a reaction, the amount administered will gradually increase until you experience at least a 20% reduction in your ability to breathe or until you reach a point where your lung function doesn't change. 

This test can be used to diagnose a person with asthma even if their lung function seems normal with other tests. At the end of the test, you may be given a bronchodilator to open up your airways if they experience constriction. 

Treatment options for asthma cough

Because asthma cough is associated with asthma, it is treated with the same methods. Some common treatment options include:

Quick-relief inhalers

Quick-relief inhalers contain short-acting beta-agonists, which can quickly open up the airways when it becomes difficult to breathe. Quick-relief inhalers can also help asthma cough attacks, but this option isn't necessarily a long-term treatment for those suffering from asthma and asthma cough. 

Inhaled corticosteroids

Although inhaled corticosteroids are administered much like quick-relief inhalers, they serve as a long-term asthma control medication. This means that they are taken at regular intervals, usually once or twice per day, to keep asthma attacks at bay.

Corticosteroids are commonly referred to as anti-inflammatory drugs, which makes them helpful in reducing inflammation in the lungs and airways. 

Combination inhalers

Combination inhalers are another long-term treatment for those with asthma and asthma cough. These inhalers contain long-acting beta-agonists (LABAs) and corticosteroids, which can provide even more protection from asthma attacks than either ingredient. 

Allergy medications

For people whose asthma is caused by allergies, allergy medications and allergy shots can help your body react to allergens that cause your airways to close up. 

These are just a few of the numerous treatment options available to people with asthma. Visit your doctor to get it under control before allowing it to get worse. 

Tips for preventing asthma cough

The best ways to prevent asthma cough are to take your asthma medications as prescribed by your doctor and to avoid your asthma cough triggers as much as possible. This may require you to stay indoors on days with high pollen counts, avoid tobacco smoke, or invest in an air purifier. If you have tried to avoid your triggers as much as possible without results, speak with your doctor or specialist about other possible interventions. 

When to see a doctor

Besides visiting your doctor for your annual physical, there are also a few situations relating to asthma that may warrant an appointment or emergency medical care. If you experience any of the following symptoms, you should get in touch with your doctor as soon as possible:

  • Coughing that doesn't go away

  • Wheezing when breathing in or out

  • Feeling faint or weak

  • Having difficulties completing activities of daily living

  • Worsening wheezing even after taking quick-relief medications (usually take 15 minutes to kick in)

Your doctor may recommend different medications or conduct additional exams to narrow down the issue. Your doctor may also refer you to an asthma specialist if their treatment options don't seem to help. 

If you experience any of these symptoms, consider getting immediate medical attention:

  • Flaring nostrils with every in-breath

  • Taking more than 30 breaths per minute

  • Difficulty walking or talking at a normal pace 

  • Bluing of nails or lips

If you believe you may have asthma, or your current asthma treatment doesn't seem to be keeping it under control, speak with your doctor. 

The lowdown

Asthma cough can be a distressing condition, and it can take time to figure out how to manage it. The good news is that there are several possible treatment options, so if one medication or inhaler doesn't work for you, you may still find relief from another type. 

Asthma can be disruptive to everyday life when uncontrolled, but asthma that is controlled with the right medications and lifestyle changes may allow you to continue activities you enjoy. 

If you believe you have asthma and haven't yet been diagnosed, schedule an appointment with a physician to undergo some testing.

  1. Asthma facts and figures | Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America

  2. Asthma disparities in America | Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America

  3. Does asthma run in the family? | Global Allergy and Airways Patient Platform

Have you considered clinical trials for Asthma?

We make it easy for you to participate in a clinical trial for Asthma, and get access to the latest treatments not yet widely available - and be a part of finding a cure.

Joining community groups and exercise programs for my condition made me feel empowered – but I want to be part of finding a cure.
Peter, 64

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