An asthma attack can be a terrifying experience. It can feel as if someone is sitting on your chest or there’s a cloud in your lungs. You struggle to draw in a full breath. Your chest tightens. Your breathing quickens.
It feels, as one asthma sufferer put it, “like you’re drowning in air.”
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. Other common symptoms are wheezing and a rattling sound in the chest.
The duration of an 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 asthma attacks can be shortened with appropriate treatment.
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An asthma attack can be triggered by exposure to an allergen, such as tree, grass or weed pollen, dust mites, cockroaches or animal dander. Other common triggers are irritants in the air, such as smoke or chemical fumes, and strong odors, such as perfume.
Certain illnesses — particularly the flu, sinusitis or even a mild upper respiratory infection — may also trigger an asthma attack, as can strenuous exercise, extreme weather conditions and strong emotions that change normal breathing patterns.
Warning signs of a potential asthma attack can include an increase in your need for rescue medication (especially albuterol), a worsening cough, shortness of breath (particularly if it wakes you up at night) and diminished tolerance for exercise.
In general, it is important to stay calm and use the medications your allergist has prescribed. An up-to-date asthma action plan filled out by your doctor should always be available to help guide treatment when symptoms occur.
Quick-relief medications – often administered via an inhaler – are used to treat asthma attacks as needed. They include short-acting, rapid-onset beta2-agonist and/or anticholinergic bronchodilators (which relax airway muscles). If symptoms persist or progress, then systemic corticosteroids (which reduce airway inflammation) may be necessary. If symptoms persist, see your allergist.
Seek immediate medical treatment if coughing or shortness of breath persists or seems to be worsening.
Triggers in Children
Some triggers particularly affect children with asthma and can make the inflammation in their lungs even worse. The common cold is one of the most frequent triggers for asthma attacks in very young children. Others include:
- Exposure to allergens (such as animal dander, dust mites or pollen)
- Strong smells (perfumes or other odors)
- Changes in weather; cold air
- Running or playing hard
- Crying or laughing
If your child has asthma, your allergist will help you discover the triggers that bring on or worsen the symptoms. The first step to controlling symptoms is to stay away from whatever makes your child cough or wheeze.