Can Chest Tightness Be a Symptom of Asthma?

If you have asthma, you may experience a feeling of chest tightness from time to time. When asthma acts up, your bronchi constrict (narrow), and your lungs become inflamed and produce excess mucus. This makes it hard for air to pass through, even as you put all your effort into breathing.

This article will explore whether chest tightness could be a symptom of asthma, other potential causes of chest tightness, treatment options, and how to know when chest tightness is an emergency.

Triggers for Chest Tightness in Asthma

Theresa Chiechi / Verywell

What Is Chest Tightness?

When you have chest tightness due to your asthma, you may feel like you can't easily push air in and out of your chest. With asthma, mild chest tightness can be present all or most of the time, but it may worsen in response to asthma triggers and in the hours or minutes before an asthma exacerbation.

Symptoms of chest tightness include:

  • A feeling that your chest is constricted, as if there's a band around it
  • A sense that you're trying to push against your chest from the inside as you breathe
  • A struggle to fully exhale (breathe out)
  • Difficulty inhaling (breathing in)

These episodes are usually accompanied by wheezing, shortness of breath, and a chronic cough. Chest tightness can be anxiety-provoking, and it is often a sign of worsening asthma control and/or an impending asthma attack.

Not all people who have asthma experience chest tightness. But there is a type of asthma described as chest tightness variant asthma (CTVA) in which this symptom is especially frequent.

Call 911 or go to an emergency room for chest tightness if:

  • The discomfort is severe
  • You have associated chest pain, tachypnea (rapid breathing), nausea, sweating, dizziness, or fainting
  • The sensation is localized to a specific area of your chest
  • Your chest tightness is associated with physical activity or progressively worsens
  • You have a feeling of impending doom or that something is horribly wrong


Asthma Doctor Discussion Guide

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Is Chest Tightness a Symptom of Asthma?

Chest tightness is often a symptom of asthma. In asthma, the bronchi in the lungs constrict and the lungs become inflamed and produce excess mucus. As a result, it becomes harder for air to get in and out of your lungs, making it hard to breathe.

A number of triggers can lead to worsened chest tightness when you have asthma, including:

Treatments and Management of Chest Tightness

There are several different types of medications that can help control asthma symptoms, including chest tightness.

Medications commonly used to treat asthma symptoms include:

Bronchodilators: Bronchodilators relax muscles around the airways, reducing chest tightness and making it easier to breathe. Short-acting bronchodilator inhalers (also called "rescue inhalors") like albuterol work right away to provide immediate relief from symptoms. Long-acting bronchodilators like Spiriva (tiotropium bromide) are used long-term and are not intended for quick relief.

Corticosteroids: Inhaled corticosteroids, such as Pulmicort (budesonide) are available to reduce swelling in the airways and make it easier to breathe. In some cases, oral versions are recommended.

Anticholinergics: Anticholinergenics (given via an inhaler or nebulizer) prevent muscle bands from tightening around the airways to relieve chest tightness among other symptoms. This type of medicine is typically used in combination with an inhaled corticosteroid and taken daily.

If you have an established diagnosis of asthma with chest tightness, it's important that you promptly use your rescue asthma treatment when you develop this symptom.

Sometimes chest tightness in asthma is relieved with bronchodilators, but some people with asthma experience improvement of chest tightness only with other asthma treatments.

Asthma with chest tightness that is relieved with the use of asthma drugs except bronchodilators (CTRAEB) might differ from asthma with chest tightness relieved with bronchodilator use (CTRB). The latter is associated with inflammation and bronchoconstriction, while the former is only associated with inflammation.

Avoiding things that trigger your asthma can also keep asthma attacks at bay, as can reducing stress, a known asthma trigger.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Whether you have been diagnosed with asthma or not, it is important that you get medical help for your chest tightness.

Call your healthcare provider's office for an appointment if:

  • You experience mild chest tightness at the same time every day or when your asthma medicine is wearing off.
  • You only experience chest tightness along with your other asthma symptoms.
  • You started having occasional chest tightness when you had a change in your asthma medication.
  • Your chest tightness improves when you use your asthma rescue treatment, but is recurrent.

Recurrent episodes of chest tightness may indicate that your asthma isn't well-controlled. When you have sudden chest tightness with asthma, it can be a sign that your symptoms are on the way to escalating into an asthma attack if you do not follow your asthma action plan.

Chest tightness and pain can also be a sign of serious conditions such as heart disease or pulmonary embolism (PE).

Summary

Chest tightness is a common symptom in people with asthma and may be accompanied by wheezing, shortness of breath, and coughing. Chest tightness may be a sign that an asthma attack is coming on or that your asthma is worsening. In some cases, it may be a sign of serious heart and lung problems.

A Word From Verywell

Chest can be an especially distressing and anxiety-provoking symptom in asthma. If you tend to experience recurrent chest tightness as part of your asthma, it's important that you learn to recognize the need for rescue treatment and that you seek medical attention if your chest tightness seems worse or is accompanied by unfamiliar symptoms.

8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Pat Bass, MD
Dr. Bass is a board-certified internist, pediatrician, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Physicians.