Asthma Attack or Panic Attack?

Learn how to tell the difference between asthma and panic attacks.


By Jessica Tondre


You’ve either experienced it or heard it, I’m sure. The runner breathing all too loudly and gasping for air. You may be thinking they aren’t in the physical shape to be running that fast (lack of exercise endurance), and perhaps they aren’t. But they may also suffer from exercise-induced asthma or even be having a panic attack. You may also wonder why they don’t stop. Remember, we’re talking about runners here.

A little background: I’ve suffered with asthma my whole life. I was 6 weeks premature and my lungs never fully developed. So, I AM this runner. Asthma is a lung condition that makes breathing difficult due to inflammation and bronchospasm of the airways. Bronchospasm is an abnormal contraction of the smooth muscle of the bronchi, resulting in an acute narrowing and obstruction of the respiratory airway. There are multiple triggers like stress, respiratory infections, allergens, and exercise. If the symptoms are solely brought on by exercise, the sufferer has Exercise-Induced Asthma (EIA). EIA attacks generally reach their peak about 5-10 minutes after cessation of activity and diminish altogether in another 20-40 minutes. Knowing the difference between exercise, shortness of breath brought on by lack of exercise endurance and panic attacks is imperative in preventing and controlling symptoms, if you happen to suffer from any of the three.

Signs and Symptoms of EIA

The easiest way to think of EIA or asthma in general is restricted and labored breathing. There is wheezing caused by airway constriction, chest tightness, coughing due to mucous production, and increased heart rate and respiratory rate.

Common Treatments

Short acting asthma medications, or rescue inhalers, are taken during an attack and long acting asthma medications are taken to control symptoms. These come in different forms so ask your doctor.

Signs and Symptoms of shortness of breath due to lack of exercise endurance

Symptoms are less severe than an asthma attack. When exercise stops or slows down, symptoms go away quickly. Overweight people and people who have sedentary jobs may have more trouble breathing during exercise as they are beginning a healthier lifestyle. That does not mean they can’t have EIA, so if you feel more severe symptoms, definitely check with your doctor.

Common Treatments

Continued pursuit of a healthy lifestyle. Recommendation for slowing down pace to a manageable speed for current state of fitness. Continue to exercise as this will improve muscle strength and endurance, which will strengthen the heart and lungs simultaneously.

If you have frequent bouts of breathlessness and symptoms that make you uncertain about what you may be dealing with during usual activity, consult with your doctor.

Signs and symptoms of panic attacks

The easiest way to think of panic attacks, typically characterized by hyperventilation when confused with asthma, is overbreathing. They mimic asthma attacks in that the sufferer feels like their throat is closing, but are anxiety related. The common symptom is breathlessness, but panic attacks are less acutely dangerous.

They usually occur due to excessive stress or workload which results in a brain reaction (carbon dioxide decrease) causing an anxiety response, not an actual obstruction of airways. Calm Clinic has more information about panic attacks, hyperventilation and the pathophysiology behind them. In relation to exercise, or EIA panic attacks, sufferers typically over-respond to normal discomfort from maximal effort.

Common Treatments

Anti-anxiety medications, psychiatric consultation, respiratory training and counseling. Make sure to talk to your physician if you think you may be suffering with panic attacks during exercise.

Knowing the difference is the first step to knowing if you or a loved one may need to seek medical care. Being prepared to deal with it on your next run will have you breathing easier. As for me, I like being a bit of a mystery so I’ll get back to breathing loudly on my runs and making people wonder!

Jessica Tondre, aka Jess Runs Blessed, and her husband live in Trophy Club, TX with their two children Carleigh (6), Parker (4) and their 14 year old dachshund Tyson. A UT Austin alum and former pharmaceutical rep, she is now a wife, mother, runner, RRCA run coach and blogger with dreams of Boston Qualifying and a penchant for injury. Jessica enjoys healthy eating, clean recipes, trying out new workouts and hopes to inspire and motivate others. She can be followed via her blog Marathon Running Blog - Healthy Living - JessRunsBlessed - and on the following social media channels: IG- @jessrunsblessed; FB-