What is Stress-Induced Asthma?

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Stress-induced asthma is a form of asthma that is triggered or worsened by stress. Asthma is a condition that affects the lungs and makes it difficult to breathe due to inflammation of secretions in the airways. Asthma is very common in the general population and accounts for 1.6 million emergency room visits in the United States annually.

This article discusses the symptoms of stress-induced asthma and factors that can contribute to this condition. It also covers the treatments and strategies that may help you cope with stress and asthma symptoms.

Symptoms of Stress-Induced Asthma

The symptoms of stress-induced asthma are the same as other types of asthma. However, such symptoms are more likely to occur when a person is experiencing stress. Common symptoms include:

  • Chest tightness or pain
  • Coughing
  • Difficulty breathing because of coughing, wheezing, or shortness of breath
  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid, shallow breathing
  • Wheezing while exhaling

For people experiencing severe stress or anxiety, it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between a stress-induced asthma attack and a panic attack. The symptoms of the two can be quite similar, which can contribute to misdiagnosis.

Some evidence also suggests that people with asthma may be more prone to developing panic disorder, which is characterized by experiencing sudden panic attacks.

Getting the correct diagnosis is important to ensure proper treatment. Asthma attacks can be serious or even life-threatening, so it is important to understand what is causing your symptoms so that you can manage your breathing issues properly.

Talk to a healthcare practitioner about your symptoms if you are experiencing symptoms of breathlessness, wheezing, or chest pain. You may need to utilize a peak flow meter to track your symptoms to determine if what you are experiencing is caused by asthma.

Causes of Stress-Induced Asthma

The exact causes of asthma are not entirely known, but genetics, environmental factors, allergies, and respiratory infections play a role. Many different situations can lead to stress and trigger asthma symptoms. These can vary from one individual to the next, but some common causes include:

  • Academic problems
  • Conflict in interpersonal relationships
  • Financial difficulties
  • Job loss
  • Problems and pressures at work
  • Relationships problems
  • Other difficult life events

Stress-induced asthma can sometimes be connected to a specific trigger, but in other cases, it might be caused by general, non-specific, or chronic stress.

There is also some evidence that certain types of stress may increase the risk of developing asthma. Research has also found that traumatic childhood experiences are linked to immune dysregulation, which is associated with an increased risk of developing asthma.

Evidence suggests that experiencing life-threatening asthma attacks may also contribute to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Research has found that teens who have had serious asthma episodes are more likely to also have symptoms associated with PTSD.

Treatment of Stress-Induced Asthma

Treatments for asthma focus on addressing asthma and the sources of stress that trigger asthma symptoms. There is no cure for asthma, but there are medications available that can help control symptoms. These medications are usually administered via an inhaler and can provide quick relief and long-term control of symptoms. 

Stress management strategies can also help people control triggers that can lead to asthma symptoms. Strategies that can be helpful include:

  • Adequate sleep: Sleep deprivation can make it difficult to manage daily stress. Making sure you are getting enough sleep each night may help you feel better rested and better able to handle stressful situations.
  • Breath control: Learning how to control your breath may be useful when dealing with situations that create anxiety and stress.
  • Exercise: Research suggests that getting regular physical activity can help reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. Be sure to check with your doctor first to ensure that exercise is safe for you if you have asthma or another health condition.
  • Meditation and mindfulness: Meditation and mindfulness can help you learn to calm your mind and focus on the present moment. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How is asthma diagnosed?

    Asthma is diagnosed using a number of tools including a physical exam, analysis of symptoms and medical history, chest x-ray, lung function tests, and peak flow measurements.

  • What’s the difference between stress-induced asthma and a panic attack?

    While they both cause difficulty breathing, stress-induced asthma leads to airway constriction that decreases oxygen intake. Panic attacks, on the other hand, lead to rapid, shallow breathing without the actual constriction of the airways.

  • Who is at risk for stress-induced asthma?

    Chronic stress or trauma may increase a person's risk of developing stress-induced asthma. People with asthma who experience high-stress levels may be at a higher risk of asthma attacks in these situations.

8 Sources
Verywell Mind 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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  4. American Lung Association. What causes asthma?

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By Matthew Tull, PhD
Matthew Tull, PhD is a professor of psychology at the University of Toledo, specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder.