Asthma attacks occur when one or more triggers exacerbate asthma symptoms. During an asthma attack, bronchial tubes tighten, making it very difficult to breathe.
Asthma is a chronic breathing condition that causes inflammation in the bronchial tubes. These are the tubes that carry air to the lungs. During an asthma attack, this inflammation worsens, and the tubes tighten, making breathing very difficult.
An inhaler is usually the best way to relieve symptoms of an asthma attack. Keep reading to learn more about why asthma attacks occur, the symptoms, and how to treat them.
People who have asthma have chronic inflammation in the bronchial tubes, which makes it more difficult for them to breathe.
During an asthma attack, the bronchial tubes constrict. This creates a much narrower passageway for air and can make breathing feel impossible. A person takes in less oxygen with each breath, has difficulty exhaling, may breathe very rapidly, or feel unable to catch their breath.
Most people can usually manage asthma attacks with the proper treatment. However, asthma cause death if left untreated. In 2016, 3,518 people in the United States died from asthma.
Asthma can affect anyone, but Black people are nearly three times more likely to die from asthma than white people. Black people also develop more severe asthma.
Ongoing medical care and an asthma treatment plan can help a person manage their symptoms and seek prompt help when necessary.
An asthma attack may appear to come out of nowhere. But many people find that specific triggers cause their attacks. Keeping a log of these triggers can help a person avoid their next attack.
Some common triggers include:
- weather changes
- allergens, such as pollen
- sinus or other respiratory tract infections
- intense physical exertion
- mold spores
- exposure to pet dander
- fragrance or other irritating chemicals
- air pollution
- indoor air pollution from toxic chemicals, roach feces, or exposure to rats and mice
Symptoms of an asthma attack include:
- trouble breathing
- breathing very rapidly
- wheezing or gasping
- rapid heart rate
- being unable to complete a sentence
- panic and anxiety
When a person has a severe asthma attack, they may lose consciousness, become confused, or their hands and feet may turn blue or white.
An untreated asthma attack can cause death or lasting damage to the body if a person cannot get enough oxygen for a prolonged period. However, this is rare.
Some people develop warning signs of a pending asthma attack a day or two before the attack. Keeping a log of these symptoms may help a person predict their next attack. Some common signs of an upcoming attack include:
- a scratchy or sore throat
- trouble breathing
- an unexplained cough
- poor sleep
- increased chest congestion
- a headache
- abdominal pain
- fever or chills
- an eczema flare
- increased allergy symptoms
- runny or itchy eyes
- a runny or congested nose
Several strategies can reduce the risk of an asthma attack.
- maintaining or reaching a moderate body weight
- avoiding asthma triggers
- managing environmental and food allergies
- quitting smoking
- certain medications, including maintenance inhalers and potential biologic therapy
Some people might find the following interventions
- Help the person remain calm: Panic can make it more difficult to breathe.
- Move away from the allergen or source of the attack: For many people, moving to a cooler, well-ventilated space helps.
- Use a rescue inhaler: Inhalers contain bronchodilators that can help slow the attack. Follow the dosage schedule in a person’s asthma plan. This usually means taking a few puffs every few minutes to hours.
- Avoid hyperventilating: Sit upright and take slow, deep breaths.
- Call 911 or go to the emergency room: This is vital if the attack does not get better and a rescue inhaler does not work after a few attempts.
When a person has a severe asthma attack, they may need oxygen through a mask. In rare cases, they might need to use a ventilator in the hospital.
People with asthma should develop an asthma attack plan with their doctors. This plan can help a person stay calm during an asthma attack and may help identify treatment strategies.
People with asthma should alert others to their condition. Parents should ensure teachers and school administrators know about a child’s asthma and learn how to follow the asthma attack plan.
In some cases, wearing a medical alert bracelet may help alert first responders to a person’s asthma status.
There are also some things people can try at home in the absence of immediately available medical treatment or while waiting for emergency services to arrive.
Contact a doctor if the following apply:
- A person has never had an asthma attack before.
- A person’s asthma medication is not working as well as it used to.
- A person’s asthma attacks are getting steadily worse.
Go to the emergency room or dial 911 if:
- A person’s asthma rescue inhaler does not work, and they cannot breathe.
- A person turns blue, white, or purple.
- A person loses consciousness.
- A baby or child has difficulty breathing and cannot talk.
- A person has a very rapid heart rate, and asthma medication does not help.
- A person seems very confused after an asthma attack.
- A person hits their head after fainting or during an asthma attack.
Asthma attacks are serious and can cause life-threatening complications if a person does not treat them correctly.
However, most people can manage asthma successfully with ongoing care.
Understanding asthma, the triggers, and treatment options can help a person feel a sense of control.
Talk with a doctor about any new or changing asthma symptoms.