Asthma attacks can be fatal. However, most people with asthma can manage their condition to avoid serious illness or death. An asthma management program can help to prevent asthma attacks.

Asthma is a long-term respiratory condition that affects the airways. People with asthma have inflamed airways that narrow and tighten during an attack. This restricts the amount of oxygen that can reach the lungs, making breathing very difficult and sometimes impossible.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 7.8% of the United States population has asthma.

In 2019, around 41% of people with asthma had one or more asthma attacks in the last 12 months.

Read on to find out:

  • how likely it is that a person may die from an asthma attack
  • the signs and symptoms of asthma attacks, including potentially fatal attacks
  • how to prevent attacks and manage asthma
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In some cases, asthma attacks can be deadly. In 2019, 3,524 people in the U.S. died of an asthma attack, which is equivalent to 10 people in every million.

When airways become severely inflamed and constricted, they cannot deliver enough oxygen to the lungs. Mucus and phlegm can also fill the airways, restricting breathing even more.

Most people with asthma are able to keep their condition under control by avoiding their triggers, taking medication to control their asthma, and taking medication when their asthma symptoms worsen.

Around 5–10% of people in the U.S. with asthma have severe asthma, which does not respond to the usual medications. These individuals will need to get a referral to a specialist asthma clinic so a medical team can find the right combination of treatments that work for them. Doctors do not yet know why some people develop severe asthma.

The main symptoms of an asthma attack are:

  • increased wheezing and coughing
  • a tight feeling in the chest
  • feeling breathless and tiring easily
  • quicker breathing or a feeling of not being able to take in enough air
  • not feeling better from using a quick relief inhaler such as albuterol
  • needing to use a quick relief inhaler more than every 4 hours

A person may not have all these symptoms when they are having an asthma attack. To treat mild asthma attacks, a person can take medication from a rescue inhaler and get their attack under control within minutes.

For more severe attacks, rescue medications may not work or are not enough to help with the current symptoms. In these situations, patients should seek medical treatment immediately.

Seeking emergency help

A person should seek emergency medical treatment if they:

  • are straining to breathe
  • cannot say more than a few words at a time
  • have severe breathlessness or wheezing
  • have fingertips or lips that are turning gray or blue
  • are getting no relief from their rescue inhaler
  • are feeling confused and agitated

Signs of an asthma attack can come on suddenly or build up over several days. By recognizing when symptoms are getting worse, a person can prevent an asthma attack from happening.

The most common warning signs before an asthma attack are:

  • increased wheezing and coughing
  • feeling breathless
  • having a tight chest
  • needing to use a rescue inhaler more often than is normal for them
  • disturbed sleep due to increased asthma symptoms at night
  • difficulty with everyday tasks

According to a 2016 review in Multidisciplinary Respiratory Medicine, a person is more likely to die from an asthma attack if they:

  • have previously had a serious asthma attack requiring intubation and mechanical ventilation
  • have needed frequent emergency treatment for asthma, especially in the last 6–12 months
  • are using or have recently stopped using oral corticosteroid medication
  • do not follow their asthma action plan, including taking medication properly

Asthma often gets worse at night, although the reasons for this are still unclear and likely due to multiple factors. If a person wakes up in the middle of an asthma attack, they should use their rescue inhaler. It’s a good idea for a person to keep it within reach of their bed, especially if they’re prone to nocturnal (nighttime) asthma.

If a person regularly experiences asthma symptoms at night, it’s important to talk with a healthcare professional about the problem. Adjusting the timing of asthma medication may help. A doctor may also need to increase or add medication.

Asthma tends to get worse over time, and if a person is having symptoms at night, they may need to update their treatment plan to better manage their symptoms.

Asthma can cause complications that affect a person’s health and quality of life. People with asthma might experience:

  • disturbed sleep that results in daytime fatigue
  • a lack of physical activity due to avoiding exercise that triggers asthma
  • interruption to daily life
  • absence from work or school
  • psychological conditions such as anxiety or depression

People with asthma may also experience side effects from medications. For example, corticosteroid inhalers can lead to thrush in the mouth. Oral corticosteroids can cause:

  • weight gain
  • bloating
  • changes in eyesight
  • bruising
  • cognitive changes

With the right medication and advice from healthcare professionals, it’s possible to stop asthma attacks from worsening or prevent them altogether.

An allergist, immunologist, or pulmonologist will work with a patient to create a specialized asthma management program. They will help identify the specific triggers that cause the airways to narrow and become restricted. The most common triggers are:

  • dust mites
  • pollen
  • pet dander
  • molds
  • pest droppings (such as from a mouse or cockroach)
  • air pollution
  • tobacco smoke

Sometimes internal factors can cause asthma. There is some evidence connecting psychological stress to asthma. However, no one knows exactly how the relationship between stress and asthma works.

Once a person understands their asthma triggers, they can take steps to avoid them. The following tips might also help prevent an asthma attack:

  • Avoid certain medications that can cause or worsen asthma symptomsThese include aspirin or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen and beta-blockers. An allergist or pulmonologist can recommend alternatives or give advice about how to use NSAIDs safely.
  • Get plenty of rest and follow a balanced diet and exercise regimen.
  • Always have quick-relief rescue medication on hand during exercise or when exposed to cold, dry air or weather changes, as these can trigger asthma symptoms.

An allergist or pulmonologist can prescribe medications designed to keep asthma under control and give advice about what to do when an attack happens.

It is important that family and friends also know which medications a person needs during an attack and when to seek emergency treatment.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in 2019, around 262 million people had asthma, which caused 461,000 deaths.

In the same year in the U.S., more women than men died of asthma. Males under the age of 18 were twice as likely to die as females in the same age bracket.

According to the CDC, Black Americans are up to three times more likely to die from asthma than other racial or ethnic groups.

With proper management, it is usually possible to keep asthma under control and live a full, active life.

Although most people who have an asthma attack get help and recover, people can and do die from asthma attacks.

Taking preventative measures, knowing the right medications to take, and following an asthma management program can help a person feel in control of their condition and live an active and full life.