What Is Silent Asthma?

Around 25 million people in the US¹ have asthma. The condition is caused by swelling in the airways. When the airways swell, they narrow and restrict airflow. This is often called an asthma attack.

Many things can trigger an asthma attack, including seasonal or food allergies and exercise. During an asthma attack, you may have shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing, and tightness in your chest.

You or someone else may experience an asthma attack without any audible symptoms, making it challenging to recognize. However, there are other symptoms to watch out for.

Knowing how to recognize silent asthma symptoms can help ensure medical care is sought as soon as possible. Untreated, asthma attacks can be fatal.

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What is silent asthma, and what are the symptoms?

Silent asthma is a term used to describe what happens when someone is experiencing an asthma attack without any of the usual audible symptoms. Audible symptoms include wheezing, gasping, or coughing.

With silent asthma, you may experience other symptoms, such as:

  • Tightness in the chest

  • Being easily winded during physical exercise

  • Taking a long time to catch your breath

  • Being irritable or anxious

  • Feeling tired due to a lack of oxygen

  • Yawning or sighing

  • Difficulty sleeping

These are all signs of an asthma attack, but you might not make the sounds normally associated with asthma.

What causes a silent asthma attack?

Genetic and environmental factors play a role in the development of asthma and silent asthma.

You are more likely to develop the condition yourself if a close family member, such as a parent, has asthma.

Other causes of asthma include:

  • Exposure to certain chemicals and environmental conditions

  • Being born early or underweight

  • Suffering from allergies, such as seasonal hay fever or allergies to pet dander

  • Hormonal changes

  • Damage to your lungs from smoking

  • Excessive weight gain

  • Respiratory infections

Speak to your doctor if you experience symptoms such as tightness in the chest, wheezing, or feeling out of breath after light activity. They can help you determine if your breathing difficulties are caused by asthma or another underlying health condition.

Why is it important to recognize silent asthma?

Wheezing² is often a characteristic of an asthma attack, but not everyone exhibits audible symptoms. This might be due to how your body reacts to airway constriction.

Any respiratory distress is cause for concern. On average, 11 people die in the US every day¹ from asthma attacks. Starting treatment at the first sign of breathing difficulties can help save your life. That’s why recognizing the symptoms of an asthma attack is important – not just the audible systems.

In some cases, a lack of noise during respiratory distress may indicate something called a “silent chest.”³ A silent chest occurs when your airway constricts so much that you can’t get enough (or any) air into your lungs. A blockage in your chest could be the cause, possibly due to mucus or spasms in your bronchial tubes.

A silent chest is a serious and potentially fatal medical condition. It can stop your body from getting the oxygen it needs to survive.

You should take asthma attack symptoms seriously and speak to your doctor as soon as possible. If your symptoms don’t start to ease with treatment, seek help from your local emergency room.

How to treat silent asthma

Many treatment options are available for asthma sufferers. Early intervention, prevention, and treatment are key to managing symptoms.

You can treat silent asthma in the same way as asthma with wheezing — primarily with medications that prevent or treat symptoms.

You’ll work with your doctor to determine the best treatment options for your specific type of asthma.

The lowdown

An asthma attack occurs when your airways become more restricted and your asthma symptoms worsen. An attack is usually characterized by audible sounds, such as gasping or wheezing. However, not all asthma attacks cause audible symptoms. This is known as silent asthma.

Silent asthma causes other symptoms, including tightness in the chest, yawning, sighing, and difficulty catching your breath. Knowing what to look out for could help save you or someone else’s life when experiencing a silent asthma attack.

Speak to your doctor if you develop asthma symptoms, and seek emergency medical care if your symptoms worsen or continue.

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

  2. Wheezing and asthma | NIH: National Library of Medicine

  3. Successful treatment of fatal asthma combined with a silent chest: A case report (2020)

Other sources:

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