When Difficulty Breathing Is Asthma or Something Else

a doctor examining a patient

Jose Luis Pelaez Inc / Blend Images / Getty Images 

If you are experiencing difficulty breathing, it could be asthma. All of the following asthma symptoms may be associated with difficulty breathing:

However, a number of different conditions can lead to difficulty breathing. If you want to know more about your breathing difficulty, this article will help you identify the cause. Make sure not to just say "it's nothing and I will worry about it later." While difficulty breathing can be asthma, it can also be something more serious.

The only way you are going to know and be able to address your difficulty breathing is to see your doctor and get it evaluated. If you assume that it is asthma and just take an over the counter asthma product or your friend's inhaler, you may be mistreating and putting yourself at risk.

What Else It Could It Be

Your difficulty breathing could be asthma, but it could also be one of these serious conditions. While asthma-like treatment may provide relief, it will not get to the heart of the problem if these conditions are leading to your difficulty breathing:

  • Congestive Heart Failure: In this condition, your heart does not squeeze well and is unable to adequately supply the rest of the body with the blood and oxygen needed to operate normally. As a result, you may experience swelling in the lower extremities and shortness of breath when lying flat, in addition to the asthma-like symptoms of wheezing (due to fluid in the lungs rather than inflammation) and shortness of breath.
  • Pulmonary Embolism or PE: This condition results from a blood clot in the lungs. Patients have risk factors such as recent immobility due to car/plane trip or due to a medical illness. Certain medications increase risk such as birth control pills. Wheezing is a less common and less prominent symptom in PE. Patients more commonly experience a sudden onset of shortness of breath and chest pain.
  • Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease or GERD: GERD can sometimes be a trigger for asthma, but is also responsible for pneumonitis and scarring of the lungs that can lead to symptoms.
  • Hypersensitivity Pneumonitis: Chronic exposure to certain substances such as moldy hay and bird droppings can lead to breathing problems. While this condition may lead to wheezing, the pattern seen on lung function tests is not typical for asthma.

Diagnostic Tests for Difficulty Breathing

When you experience breathing difficulty, your doctor may order a number of different diagnostic tests. Which tests your doctor orders will depend on your history, physical exam and risk factors. Tests may include:

  • Peak Expiratory Flow Rate (PEFR): A test that measures how much air you can quickly exhale from the lung.
  • Spirometry: More complete testing than PEFR and includes a number of different lung volumes.
  • Bronchoprovocation Challenge Testing: A provocatory test that attempts to cause wheezing.
  • Chest X-Ray: A picture of the lungs that can identify a number of different problems.
  • CT Scans: These scans are often done if your doctor suspects a PE.


When you experience difficulty breathing, your doctor may use a number of treatments that are also used for asthma. These include:

Short-Acting Beta Agonists (SABA) Such as Albuterol

SABAs can be used for quick-relief when you experience difficulty breathing. SABAs are used for the acute relief of asthma symptoms and also used to prevent exercise-induced asthma. Some of the SABAs include:

  • Albuterol
  • Proventil
  • Ventolin
  • Xopenex
  • Maxair

Long-Acting Beta Agonists (LABA)

If your difficulty breathing is due to asthma, this medication may be used when inhaled steroids are not adequately controlling your symptoms, otherwise known as adjunctive therapy. LABAs are not used as a single asthma medication for the treatment and prevention of asthma symptoms. LABAs are also not used to treat acute asthma symptoms or asthma exacerbations. If you experience difficulty breathing at night, a LABA may help you get more rest. LABAs include:

  • Brovana
  • Foradil
  • Perforomist
  • Serevent

Inhaled Steroids

Inhaled steroids are the most important medication if your difficulty breathing is due to asthma. Inhaled steroids are the most effective asthma medication available for the long-term control of asthma. It is unlikely your doctor will put you on this medication until the cause of your difficulty breathing is known. Inhaled steroids prescribe to you may include:

Leukotriene Modifiers

This type of medication may be considered if your doctor thinks your difficulty breathing is caused by exercise-induced asthma or if your difficulty breathing is related to allergies. Three leukotriene modifiers are currently available:


Anticholinergics can treat difficulty breathing by acting as a bronchodilator and are often used in combination with SABAs in the acute treatment of breathing difficulty in the emergency department or hospital. An example of an anticholinergic approved for the treatment of asthma is SPIRIVA RESPIMAT.

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Article Sources

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Asthma.

  2.  American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Leukotriene modifiers. Updated January 2018.

  3. SPIRIVA RESPIMAT. Highlights of prescribing information. Revised March 2019.

Additional Reading

  • National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Expert Panel Report 3 (EPR3): Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Asthma?