Asthma is a condition that causes the airways to narrow, swell and produce extra mucus, leading to difficulty breathing, coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath. An asthma attack is the sudden worsening of these symptoms, causing the muscles around the airways to tighten and constrict air flow.
Symptoms of an Asthma Attack
As the muscles around the airways tighten during an asthma attack, the airway linings become inflamed and thicker mucus is produced. This can create a variety of symptoms:
- • Severe wheezing during both inhalation and exhalation
- • Coughing that will not stop
- • Very rapid breathing
- • Chest tightness or pressure
- • Retractions: tightened neck and chest muscles
- • Trouble talking
- • Feelings of anxiety or panic
- • Pale, sweaty face
- • Blue lips or fingernails
- • Worsening symptoms despite use of medication
If you have any of these symptoms, call 911. Some people may go for long periods without an asthma attack or any symptoms, but may have periodic interruptions due to asthma triggers or exercise-induced asthma. When asthma attacks do take place, mild attacks are more common and the airways will open up after a few minutes or hours. Severe attacks are less common but last longer and require immediate medical attention.
Recognizing Early Signs of an Asthma Attack
Just before or at the very beginning of an asthma attack, a few early changes may occur that can signal the worsening of asthma. Learning to recognize these can help you stop an asthma attack or prevent it from worsening. These signs include:
- • Frequent cough, particularly at night
- • Reduced peak flow meter readings
- • Shortness of breath or losing breath easily
- • Tired or weak feelings during exercising
- • Wheezing or coughing during or after exercise
- • Feeling tired, easily upset or moody
- • Decreases or changes in lung function (measured on a peak flow meter)
- • Signs of a cold or allergies (sneezing, runny nose, cough, nasal congestion, sore throat or headache)
- • Trouble sleeping due to nighttime asthma
Treating these symptoms immediately when they’re recognized is vital, as an asthma attack can quickly worsen.
What to Do
If you or a loved one is experiencing an asthma attack after you’ve followed your asthma action plan, follow “red zone” or emergency instructions: contact your doctor or call 911 right away. Attacks that don’t respond to initial treatment require immediate medical attention.
Untreated Asthma Attacks
Untreated asthma attacks can lead to significant complications:
- • Breathing can become more labored, and wheezing can get louder.
- • If you use a peak flow meter during an asthma attack, your reading will likely be less than optimal.
- • You may be unable to use the peak flow meter at all as the lungs tighten.
- • Silent chest: When there’s not enough air movement to even produce wheezing. This is a dangerous sign that requires immediate hospitalization—some people mistakenly interpret it as a sign of improvement and fail to get this care.
- • Eventually, you may be unable to speak and may develop a bluish coloring around the lips (cyanosis). This means there’s less oxygen in the blood. Without immediate emergency treatment, you can lose consciousness and even die.
If you or a loved one is suffering from a serious asthma attack, seek immediate medical attention. For more information on recognizing and preventing asthma attacks, speak to your doctor.
Our physicians are specialized in a variety of respiratory illnesses and work with your primary care physician to customize your treatment plan. Our specialists understand the connection between the lungs and other areas of medicine including cardiology and endocrinology.