A person sitting down, holding their head.
The overlapping symptoms of asthma and anxiety include trouble breathing and chest pain.

Asthma vs. Anxiety

The feeling of not being able to breathe can be scary, and for people who suffer from asthma and/or anxiety attacks, this may be a regular occurrence. So, how can you tell the difference between asthma vs. anxiety? Well, for some people, asthma and anxiety are intertwined, and it is often difficult to differentiate between the two conditions because they present with similar symptoms. In this article we will outline both conditions and talk about their similarities and differences, so you are able to tell them apart. We will then touch on treatment options to help you gain a better understanding of these two conditions.

What is Asthma?

Asthma is a fairly common condition, affecting more than 24 million people in the U.S. It is a chronic condition that affects your airways and requires ongoing medical treatment.

During an asthma attack, three things happen in your airways:

  • Bronchospasm – the airway muscles tighten, which narrows the airways, thereby restricting airflow.
  • Inflammation – the airway linings swell and do not allow as much airflow into or out of the lungs.
  • Production of mucus – your body creates more mucus during an asthma attack, which clogs the airways.

Symptoms of an asthma attack often include:

  • Chest pain, pressure and/or tightness.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Wheezing.
  • Coughing (especially during the night).

Symptoms of an asthma attack vary, and may last from several minutes to several hours, and in some cases, days.

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is a type of mental health disorder that makes you respond to certain situations and things with fear. While it is completely normal to have a little anxiousness or nervousness from time to time, dealing with anxiety on a daily basis can interfere with your ability to function normally. You may find yourself over-reacting to certain triggers, and you might not be able to control your emotional and physical responses in some situations, which can severely impact your quality of life.

A panic attack can occur if you have a severe episode of anxiety that comes on suddenly. In some cases, panic attacks can come on unexpectedly, even when you feel calm. During a panic attack you may feel chest tightness and shortness of breath, which is similar to having an asthma attack. However, unlike the coughing and wheezing that is associated with asthma, panic attacks can cause the following:

  • Hyperventilation (short, rapid breathing).
  • Dizziness.
  • Feeling faint.
  • Tingling in your hands and/or face.
  • Sweating or chills.
  • Nausea.
  • Increased heart rate.
  • Feeling detached from your surroundings.
  • Feeling like you are out of control.
  • Having a fear of dying.

Typically, panic attacks peak after 10 minutes, then slowly subside.

Similarities and Differences Between Asthma and Anxiety Symptoms

Both asthma and anxiety attacks have the following similar symptoms:

  • Shortness of breath.
  • Chest pain, tightness and/or pressure.

An important difference is that airways are constricted during an asthma attack, which decreases oxygen intake. During a panic attack, oxygen flow is increased due to hyperventilation. Additionally, panic attacks typically present with a wide variety of symptoms in addition to breathing difficulties (as outlined above), whereas wheezing and coughing are typically only associated with asthma attacks.

Differentiating Between Asthma and Anxiety

One of the easiest ways to determine if you are having an asthma attack or anxiety attack is to think about how you are feeling – do you feel nervous, uptight, panicky or have a range of other symptoms in addition to shortness of breath and chest pain? If so, you are likely having a panic attack.

Another way to differentiate between asthma and anxiety is to see how you react to your medication. Asthma medication will not provide relief from anxiety attacks, and anxiety medication will not provide relief for asthma attacks.

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Treatment for Asthma

Various treatments exist to control asthma including:

  • Anti-inflammatory medication. This type of medication helps to reduce airway swelling and production of mucus, allowing better airflow into and out of your lungs. These medications may be prescribed for daily use to control and prevent your asthma symptoms.
  • Bronchodilators. These medications help to relax the airway muscles, allowing for better airflow. They also allow the mucus to move better through the airways. These medications are prescribed for use when you have symptoms.
  • Biologic therapies. These are used for asthma sufferers when symptoms continue, despite other treatment options.

Treatment for Anxiety

Treatment for anxiety is often multidimensional, meaning you can make lifestyle changes, go to counseling and take medication to manage your symptoms and help you function better.

Medications for anxiety include:

  • Anti-anxiety medications. These include benzodiazepines. They may help to decrease your anxiety, worry and panic. They typically work quickly but you may develop a tolerance to them, making them less effective overtime. Anti-anxiety medications may be used for short-term relief, followed by prescription of an anti-depressant.
  • Antidepressants. These medications alter your brain chemicals to decrease stress and enhance mood. Antidepressants typically take a little more time to work compared to anti-anxiety medications.
  • Beta-blockers. These medications, which are typically used to treat high blood pressure, can actually help to relieve some of the physical symptoms of anxiety, including increased heart rate, shaking and/or trembling.

Treating anxiety with medications can be difficult and it often takes a little trial and error to find the right combination of medications and the right dosage. It’s important to discuss changing or discontinuing your anxiety medication with your doctor prior to doing so to avoid unwanted withdrawal side effects.

The Connection Between Asthma and Anxiety

Many people with asthma also experience anxiety and panic attacks. This happens because asthma attacks can be scary and may make you feel like you are suffocating, which can lead to a panic attack.

Additionally, in some patients, anxiety can make asthma worse. Researchers have found that some stressful life events, including family conflicts, relationship troubles, financial problems, school exams and presentations, exposure to violence and public disasters can trigger asthma attacks in some individuals.

If you have asthma, it is important to manage your stress and anxiety levels to reduce the number of asthma attacks you experience.

In Conclusion

Asthma attacks and anxiety attacks can both cause stress. Learning to differentiate between the two conditions can help you to develop an appropriate treatment plan to get your symptoms under control and improve your quality of life.