Kerri MacKay enlisted the help of her friends living with asthma to describe the condition using physical descriptors. This is what asthma actually feels like.
Many people have metaphors, similes, or other comparisons to describe what asthma feels like to them. I have yet to find the words to describe my own asthma, though.
For me, my asthma flares happen slowly rather than a rapid “attack” of chest tightness. The rapid-onset attacks occur more often when I’m exercising. During an asthma flare, I’ll have increased shortness of breath, coughing, and some chest tightness. My symptoms generally get worse over the next few days.
Everyone with asthma experiences symptoms differently. To help those who don’t have asthma understand what it actually feels like, I asked my friends living with asthma to come up with creative ways to describe it.
Here’s a selection of those responses, focusing on physical descriptors that someone who doesn’t have asthma can imagine.
When I asked this question on Facebook on June 3rd, 2018, I was expecting a few friends to respond. But I received so many responses — my friends have far more creative minds than I do!
The first response from my friend Russ here in Winnipeg was short and simple: “It feels like a 500-pound gorilla is sitting on my chest. … Sometimes I wake up in the morning, and I have a hard time breathing, where it’s a chore just to get out of bed.”
With slightly more succinctness, Shayn from Pennsylvania said it feels like “fire and cotton in my lungs.”
Amy, who lives in Northern Manitoba, said: “My upper back becomes itchy between my shoulder blades as my coughing becomes more frequent and tighter…has been an asthma sign for me since the age of three!”
Rob from Kitchener, Ontario, wrote this description: “It starts by feeling like I’m in a really stuffy room with lots of dust bits in the air. Every time I breathe in, the bad stuff feels like it’s traveling deeper into the lungs, and coughing it out doesn’t work. You need to keep breathing of course, because you need oxygen, but those breaths do not go in as deeply as you know is possible. It’s like being unable to find a source of fresh air until the rescue medication relaxes the muscles to let the air get in deeper.”
Jewls from Melbourne, Australia, says: “It feels like someone [has placed] a brace or corset filled with heavy rocks around my chest and is slowly tightening it.”
Kortney went for this classic example: “When I was a kid, I would tell my friends it was like trying to [breathe] through a straw.”
Lastly, Sara from Massachusetts — who was experiencing an asthma symptom flare as she wrote to me — broke her flares into two categories.
“There are those that come on quickly, and I likely know the source of the trigger. Many of those are quickly dealt with using my fast-acting inhaler.” She notes that using maintenance medications have cut down those types of flares for her, which are sudden feelings of being unable to breathe.
“Those generally feel like someone has wrapped a huge rubber band around my chest. … Even my reaction to cold air has moved from a trigger, to a long flare, to just my lungs yelling at me most of the time.”
Then, there are longer flares, which are “usually started by a cold or allergy issue.” This is the type of flare Sara was experiencing when she wrote to me. “A long-term flare feels like something is sitting on my chest. I can’t get a decent breath in. Every few minutes is punctuated by a cough that rattles my bones. Some coughing spasms are short, but there are some that feel like they will never end.”
I’d like to say asthma feels like having just run a race, minus the running part. This description doesn’t quite work, though, because my breathing becomes shallower, too. While people who don’t have asthma may feel breathless, I don’t believe that they experience the same sensation of tightness along with the temporary post-exertion dyspnea that those of us with exercise-induced bronchoconstriction get.
In these types of flare situations, I often get tightness in the muscles of my upper back, too, so it’s like double the post-exercise components with none of the actual exercise benefits.
The best descriptor I have actually comes from my friend Stephen on the symptom of “air trapping.” Inhale, then exhale half of what’s in your lungs, and repeat. It’s like the air gets “stuck,” and often, it involves a lot of waiting it out. Even though I take medication that helps relieve this, it can sometimes go on for days.
This description doesn’t always work, but it fits many situations where I’m short of breath for hours or days at a time. It’s a miserable waiting game until the flare finally breaks, like feeling cool, crisp air after days of sluggish humidity. It’s bad enough when you’re sitting still, but even worse when you have to move around and do something.
Describing asthma in ways that are easier for people without it to understand can help break stigma and increase awareness of what we experience on a daily basis. One day, I’ll figure out a way to describe my asthma symptoms like my friends have. For now, it’s still a mystery — even to me.
RESP-US-NP-00073 May 2021
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