How to Diagnose Asthma

Three Methods:Checking for SignsIdentifying TriggersVisiting a Doctor

Asthma is a serious, sometimes fatal condition. Armed with knowledge and good medical advice, most patients can lead safe, happy lives. Always visit a doctor for an official diagnosis and treatment.

Method 1
Checking for Signs

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    Know emergency symptoms. A serious asthma attack requires immediate medical attention. Take action if you notice any of the following:[1][2]
    • Lips or nail beds turning blue or grey
    • Difficulty walking or talking
    • Skin between ribs or above breastbone sucks in while breathing
    • Rapid movement of nostrils, ribs, or stomach while breathing
    • Expanded chest that does not deflate after exhaling
    • Chest pain[3]
    • For young children — Refusal to eat, inability to recognize parents
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    Make an appointment for other symptoms. Asthma is difficult to diagnose at home, and can be fatal in serious cases. If you experience any of the symptoms below, make an appointment with a doctor. If a doctor has failed to diagnose you, and you have one of the symptoms below, visit an allergy and asthma specialist.
    • Visit the doctor even if your symptoms don't match asthma. It could be another serious condition.
    • Symptoms can change with each asthma attack. The symptoms may last just during the attack, or persist for much longer.
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    Watch for chest tightness. Many asthma patients complain of tightness, pain, or unusual sensations in the chest. You may feel like someone is sitting on your chest.
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    Think of times you've felt short of breath. Do you ever feel unable to catch your breath, or to draw enough air into your lungs? This is a very common symptom of asthma.
    • Exercising more vigorously than usual can cause this feeling in anyone. It's more likely to be a sign of asthma if even light exercise triggers this feeling. Until you get an official diagnosis, set exercise limits that don't cause breathing issues.[4]
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    Listen for wheezing. Wheezing breath sounds like whistling or squeaking in your chest. This has several possible causes, but asthma patients often wheeze when exposed to allergens or viral infections (such as a cold).[5]
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    Track your coughing. Some people with asthma suffer from coughing fits. These often happen at night or early morning, making it hard to sleep.[6]
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    Consider family history of allergies or eczema. If you or your biological family have allergies, eczema, or skin rashes, you are more likely to have asthma.[7]
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    Understand asthma in children. Kids under the age of five often wheeze due to an infection or cold, even if they don’t have asthma. A doctor may not be able to diagnose a child at this age, but he may still suggest treatment to make your child more comfortable. If symptoms stick around past the age of five, the child most likely has asthma.[8]
    • Children don't always tell people about their symptoms. Look for indirect signs of problems, including fatigue and avoiding sports or social events. Infants with breathing issues may have difficulty feeding, or may grunt during feeding.[9]

Method 2
Identifying Triggers

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    Write down possible triggers after each attack. Any time you experience one of the symptoms above, write down what you were doing and what the experience was like. Use this record to identify substances and activities to avoid.
    • Bring along this record when visiting a doctor, especially an allergy and asthma specialist.
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    Consider common allergens. Inhaled allergens can inflame your airways, causing asthma symptoms. The most common examples include:[10]
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    Avoid inhaling irritants. These substances can trigger an asthma attack in many patients:[11]
    • Smoke, including from tobacco
    • Car exhaust
    • Polluted air
    • Any sprayed chemical product, including hairspray and air freshener
    • Home décor products, including paint and cleaning products
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    Minimize cold air exposure. Cold air can constrict your airways and trigger an asthma attack. If this happens to you, make a doctor's appointment. In the meantime, take the following precautions in cold weather:[12]
    • Inhale through your nose, not your mouth
    • Wrap a scarf over your mouth and nose
    • Avoid exercise in cold locations
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    Learn about asthma and exercise. If you have difficulty breathing during exercise, visit a doctor as soon as possible. It may be dangerous to continue exercising before you have asthma medication and medical advice.
    • Asthma patients can learn to exercise safely, even at the Olympic level! Exercise that involves short bursts of activity is less likely to cause an attack.[13]
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    Look for triggers in your workplace. Chemicals in the workplace can irritate your lungs. Don't assume a chemical is safe because you've been using it for years; you may have developed an allergy that triggers asthma. Take precautions to avoid these if your breathing improves during time off. Here are the most common workplace asthma triggers:[14]
    • Hydrochloric acid, ammonia, or sulfur dioxide
    • Latex gloves
    • Paint hardener
    • Powdered medications
    • Plastics or resin manufacture
    • Detergent powder manufacture
    • Insecticides
    • Flour
    • Any of the allergens and irritants listed earlier
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    Watch out for sulfites in food and drink. Some people react to sulfites, a type of food preservative often found in processed foods. The following foods often contain sulfites, but may be available in sulfite-free preparations:[15]
    • Dried fruits or vegetables
    • Wine and beer
    • Shrimp (including fresh shrimp)
    • Bottle lime or lemon juice
    • Many processed or pickled foods, especially potato products

Method 3
Visiting a Doctor

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    Prepare for tests. Some activities may interfere with the diagnostic tests. To give yourself the best chance at a same-day diagnosis, prepare for your doctor's visit:[16]
    • Do not smoke any substance on the day of your visit.
    • Avoid all caffeine on the day of your visit.
    • Avoid exercise and cold air exposure.
    • Let your doctor know if you have recently had a cold, viral infection, or immunization (shots).
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    Tell the doctor about your symptoms. Try to pinpoint the triggers that may cause your attacks. Tell the doctor if they happen more at certain places, certain times of year, or certain times of day or night.[17]
    • Mention any family history of allergens or skin conditions.
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    Mention related conditions. Some health conditions may make your asthma worse. Let your doctor know if you are experiencing any of the following, or if you experience them regularly:[18]
    • Runny nose
    • Sinus pain or infection
    • Acid reflux (heartburn)
    • Stress
    • Sleep apnea (snoring and restless sleeping)
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    Expect a spirometry test. A spirometer measures how well you can breathe. Breathe into the mouthpiece according to doctor's instructions. Typically, you'll take a full breath, then breathe out either slowly or quickly, as directed.[19] For the most accurate results, the test should be conducted at least three times.[20]
    • Tell your doctor first if you have recently had a heart attack, stroke, chest pain, pneumothorax ("punctured lung"), eye surgery, abdominal surgery, or hemoptysis (coughing up blood). Exhaling hard can put pressure on affected areas.
    • Ask the doctor to explain the results. She will interpret them based on your height and weight, so make sure she has accurate information.
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    Get tested again after taking medicine. The doctor may give you a bronchodilator, or medicine that expands your airways, and test you again. If your lung strength improves significantly, you likely have asthma.[21]
    • The doctor may decide to give you a trial of asthma medication, then bring you back in for more tests another day.
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    Try a nitric oxide test. Some doctors may have you exhale into another machine, one that measures nitric oxide. Inflammation in your airways can produce this gas.[22]
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    Understand other tests. If your symptoms and test results don't match an obvious cause, the doctor may arrange for other tests. This usually includes one or more of the following:[23][24]
    • Bronchoprovocation: A test of lung function after cold air, exercise, or irritating your lungs with a spray or powder. This may be unpleasant, but the doctor will reverse the effects afterward.
    • X-ray of your chest
    • CT scan (CAT scan) of your sinuses (a computer-aided X-ray of your head)
    • Allergy skin tests, usually at an allergy specialist's office
    • EKG: a test to detect problems with heart function, which can cause similar symptoms to asthma
    • Blood sample to measure immunoglobulin E, an antibody produced in allergic reactions


  • A peak airflow meter is a portable way to test your lung function. This device is not as accurate as a doctor's spirometer. However, once you know you have asthma, you can use it to track your lung strength daily or during attacks.[25]
  • A doctor can't always diagnosis asthma in one appointment. If you have no symptoms during the visit, make a followup appointment.
  • Properly managed, most asthmatics can lead a normal life, participating in sports and hobbies.


  • Asthma can be extremely dangerous or even fatal. Educate yourself about the condition, but don't try to replace your doctor.
  • Even if you rule out asthma, the symptoms that caused concern may be a sign of other problems. Visit a doctor to find out.

Sources and Citations

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Categories: Asthma