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What is an asthma attack?

Asthma is an inflammation and obstruction of the bronchial tubes - the passages that allow air to enter and leave the lungs. During an asthma attack, the muscles that surround the bronchial tubes constrict, narrowing the air passages and making it extremely difficult to breathe. There is often a feeling of tightness and a wheezy or rattling sound in the chest.

An asthma attack can be triggered by exposure to an allergen, such as tree, grass or weed pollen, dust mites, cockroaches or furry animals. Other common triggers are irritants in the air, such as smoke and chemical fumes, and strong odors, such as perfume.

Certain illnesses — particularly the flu — and drugs may also trigger an asthma attack, as can strenuous exercise, extreme weather conditions and strong emotions that change normal breathing patterns.

How long does an asthma attack last?

The duration of an asthma attack can vary, depending on what caused it and how long the airways have been inflamed. Mild episodes may last only a few minutes; more severe ones can last from hours to days. Mild attacks can resolve spontaneously or may require medication, typically a quick-acting inhaler. More severe attacks can be shortened with appropriate treatment.

What should be done during an asthma attack?

Always follow the instructions of a physician. People with asthma should have an action plan for dealing with an acute attack. In general, it is important to stay calm and take prescribed medications. Quick-relief medications are used to treat asthma attacks and are taken as needed; they include short-acting, rapid-onset inhaled beta2-agonist bronchodilators and anticholinergics (which relax the muscles) and systemic corticosteroids (which reduce inflammation).

Asthma attack triggers in children

Asthma triggers are things that don’t bother most people but can make inflamed lungs even worse for a child with asthma. One of the most common triggers for asthma attacks in children who are very young is the common cold. Other asthma triggers include:

  • Smoke
  • Allergies to things such as pets, dust mites and plants
  • Strong smells (perfumes or other odors)
  • Changes in weather or cold air
  • Running or playing hard
  • Crying or laughing

If your child has asthma, your allergist will help you find out which triggers make symptoms worse. The first step to controlling symptoms is to stay away from the things that make your child cough or wheeze.

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