How To Tell The Difference Between An Asthma Attack And A Panic Attack

If you've ever experienced a sudden tight chest and had problems breathing, you might have wondered whether you were having an asthma attack or a panic attack. The two can feel very similar, and if you have asthma, it might be hard to tell whether your symptoms are worsening into an attack, or if your breathing difficulties are anxiety-related.

In those who have asthma, the airways in the lungs become swollen and narrow (via MedlinePlus). This inflammation can be caused by allergens like mold or pet dander. They can also be triggered by things like physical activity, changes in weather, and respiratory infections.

In an asthma attack, the muscles around the airways get tighter and more mucus is produced, which makes the airways even more constricted (via Mayo Clinic). This can cause wheezing, severe shortness of breath, coughing, and chest pain. If caught quickly enough, an asthma attack can be treated at home with medication. If symptoms aren't improving with medication, you should contact your medical provider right away. Frequent attacks can impact your quality of life, increase your likelihood of going to the emergency room, and can even end in death.

Similarities and differences

A panic attack shares some similarities with an asthma attack but is a very different condition. It's an intense bout of anxiety that comes on quickly and often without warning (via Healthline). It doesn't come with wheezing or coughing but can cause hyperventilation, dizziness, increased heart rate, and feeling as if you're losing control.

It can feel hard to tell the difference between an asthma attack and a panic attack since the two share some similarities. They can both cause tightness in the chest and trouble breathing. It's possible for an asthma attack to be fatal, however, you cannot die from a panic attack, according to MedicalNewsToday.

To make things more confusing, strong emotions like stress can actually trigger asthma symptoms (via MedlinePlus). According to a 2004 study published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, those with asthma are four times more likely to experience frequent panic attacks. This is partially because it can be hard to tell the difference when an asthma attack comes on.

Working with your doctor to have plans in place to both prevent and treat asthma attacks and panic attacks can help mitigate your risk.