Asthma attacks

By Jean Cherry, RN, MBA Feb 10, 2021 • 6 min

What is an asthma attack?

An asthma attack or acute asthma exacerbation occurs when breathing becomes more difficult than normal. It’s usually accompanied by wheezing and rattling in the chest. The bronchial tubes or airways leading to your lungs become inflamed and constricted. It is essential to recognize the symptoms early before the attack becomes severe or life-threatening. A mild asthma attack can resolve on its own or with medication in minutes. A more severe attack can last from hours to days, depending on the level of inflammation in the airways.

What does an asthma attack feel like?

People with asthma describe an asthma attack as a terrifying experience. They cannot get a full breath in, making it feel like they are drowning in air. Their chest feels tight, and their breathing speeds up.

What is the cause of asthma attacks?

People with asthma are allergic to various environmental conditions, called triggers, which can cause an asthma attack. Not everyone has the same triggers, so it can be helpful to keep a log of what may have caused previous asthma attacks to learn your potential triggers. Triggers can also be identified by a skin or blood test.

Asthma attack triggers

Some common allergens or irritants that may trigger an asthma attack include trees, weeds, grass, dust mites, mold and animal dander. Irritants in the air include strong odors, tobacco smoke or chemical fumes. Other triggers include respiratory infections, not taking a controller medication as prescribed, cold, dry air and exercise.

Asthma attack symptoms

An asthma attack occurs when asthma symptoms get worse than usual. It’s important to recognize the signs of an asthma attack early, so you can treat it before it gets severe. Ensure caregivers, teachers and grandparents know to call 911 if severe symptoms occur.

Progression of asthma attack symptoms

    Early warning signs

  • Dark circles under eyes
  • Irritability
  • Tiredness
  • Nervousnes

    Signs of an asthma attack

  • Trouble breathing or shortness of breath
  • Tightness in chest
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing

    Severe signs of an asthma attack

  • Shortness of breath with difficulty walking or talking
  • Confusion or decreased responsiveness
  • Blue fingernails or lips
  • Hunching over

For signs of a severe asthma attack that is a medical emergency, call 911 immediately.

Am I having an asthma attack?

If you have asthma and breathing becomes more difficult, you should take your medication as prescribed. If you are not responding to treatment, you should call your healthcare provider. Tell your healthcare provider the time of the asthma attack, the severity of your symptoms, what triggered the attack and any risk factors that could lead to death from asthma. They may ask what current medications you’re taking and what has worked for past asthma attacks, and they will work with you to create an asthma action plan.

Can you die from an asthma attack?

Yes. Asthma attacks can be fatal, but it is rare. It’s important to understand that in most of these cases, people did not recognize the warning signs of their asthma attacks. This is why it’s important to work with your healthcare provider closely. Together, you can identify your asthma attack symptoms and find an effective treatment plan.

Asthma attack treatment

Here is a list of several types of medications that may be used to treat an asthma attack:

  • Short- and long-acting bronchodilators help to relax airway muscles, making it easier to breathe. Short-acting medications provide quick relief to decrease or stop asthma symptoms, while long-acting medications provide more extended control of symptoms. Many people will need a combination of both types of bronchodilators.
  • Steroids work to reduce inflammation by decreasing swelling and mucus production.
  • Anticholinergics are inhaled medications that help prevent the tightening of muscle bands in the airways.
  • Antibiotics may be prescribed if a bacterial or viral infection caused an asthma attack.

Medications do not cure asthma. They improve symptoms if the right medication is taken at the right time. Every person's asthma is different. Work with your healthcare provider to determine the appropriate medication that works for you and determine an action plan. People who have a plan may panic less when an asthma attack occurs because they know how to manage it.

Published February 2021.

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