What is an Asthma Attack ?

March 17, 2023
Andrew Gallagher
4 Min Read

What is Asthma?

Asthma is a disease that affects your lungs, making it harder to breathe.

Related article: What is Asthma?

What are the symptoms of an asthma attack ?

The symptoms of asthma are warning signs for you to take action. If you neglect them, you are more likely to have an asthma attack. Asthma attacks could ruin your day or even lead to a trip to the emergency room and in some cases, they are fatal. Symptoms:

  • Trouble sleeping
  • Blue fingernails or lips
  • Coughing that doesn't stop (especially at night)
  • Feeling tired or weak
  • Feeling out of breath shortly after exercising
  • Hunched shoulders due to strained chest muscles from trying to inhale more air
  • Rattled breathing, wheezing, or whistling sounds when exhaling (wheezing is a common sign of asthma in children)

What is an asthma attack?

”It can kind of feel like breathing through like a straw. Like if you hold your nose to breathe through a straw. It's not much air going in. And then once you get enough air in, it's like it stops. You can't, can't inhale them. It just feels really real tight and hard to breathe out. “ - Asthma sufferer

When you breathe, air travels into the nose or mouth. The air moves down the trachea or windpipe into the airway. These airways are a series of tubes ending at the alveoli. Alveoli are tiny balloon like air sacs that transfer oxygen into the blood and allow carbon dioxide to exit. There are over 300 million alveoli in your lungs. When you have asthma, your airways, the tubes that carry air in and out of the lungs are very sensitive. That means if you breathe in certain particles from your environment, called triggers, your airways can react. When you breathe in a trigger your airways become inflamed and swollen. As a result your airways narrow, excessive mucus is produced. The mucus further clogs the airways and the muscles around the airways can tighten up or spasm narrowing them even further. These reactions to a trigger decrease the amount of air that can travel through the airways. Oxygen entering your body is reduced and the amount of carbon dioxide in your body can build up.

During an asthma attack, you may react by coughing, having shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, wheezing, or tightness in the chest. You may notice these symptoms anytime day or night. An asthmatic might wake up coughing a lot in the night or coughing a lot with sports and exercise.  They almost get bronchitis like symptoms where they're coughing for days and days, maybe even weeks. Some people get tightness of the chest on a frequent basis. Maybe when they're around something they're allergic to. They'll get chest tightness and heaviness. Sometimes it's shortness of breath with getting cold, cold weather can cause the symptoms.

What is uncontrolled asthma?

When a person's asthma symptoms are out of control, you may hear that they had an asthma attack, Episode, exacerbation or flare up. These words mean the same thing. Your body is reacting to a trigger in your environment that is causing changes in your airways. Your airways become inflamed and swollen, the muscles around your airways tighten and excess mucus forms. As a result, less air is able to travel in and out of your lungs. If these changes become severe, you may need medications called rescue inhalers to help you catch your breath. Symptoms of a flare up can include; uncontrollable coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, tightness or a burning sensation in your chest.

How to stop an asthma attack ?

You may have one or all of these symptoms symptoms of asthma can happen any time of day or night. Regardless of the trigger an asthma flare up needs immediate attention. Take your rescue medication as prescribed and record it in your asthma diary. If you have an asthma action plan, these rescue medications should be listed in the yellow or red zone. Note where you were and what you were doing when your symptoms began. If your rescue medications does not get your asthma under control within 20 minutes, you should immediately seek medical attention.

How to prevent asthma attacks?

It's important to understand what causes your flare ups and know what to do when they happen. Talk to your healthcare provider about what you can do to keep flareups under control.

The key to preventing asthma attacks is proper treatment and symptom management. That means taking your medication as prescribed. Following your asthma action plan. Being aware of your triggers and avoiding them if possible. As well as ensuring to make lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking or exercising more.

People with asthma often live in fear that an asthma attack will strike at an inconvenient or dangerous time. Triggers are unpredictable, and can cause an attack at any time. The good news is that symptoms of asthma attacks can be managed with medication. Treatment is complex and often life-long, but with care, people with asthma can prolong their lives and decrease the risk of medical emergencies.

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