Asthma Attack

What is an Asthma Attack?

When asthma symptoms sufficiently controlled by medication or other treatments suddenly worsen, the result is an asthma attack. Most attacks are mild in nature and respond well to self-treatment, which often includes an inhaler. Severe asthma attacks require immediate medical attention.

Asthma Attack Triggers

It’s not known what causes asthma, although it is classified as a chronic inflammatory disease. Specific triggers for an asthma attack vary from one person to another.

  • Having a cold or the flu
  • Exposure to smoke
  • Cold or polluted air
  • Strong fragrances
  • Allergies
  • Sinusitis

What are the Symptoms of an Asthma Attack?

During an Asthma Attack

When an attack occurs, airways become narrow, inflamed, and swollen, often to the point where breathing becomes difficult and lung capacity diminishes, and fill with mucus. The intensity of an attack can quickly change from mild to severe if it remains untreated.

Symptoms include

  • Severe coughing while attempting to breathe
  • Persistent coughing
  • Rapid breathing
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Paleness or profuse sweating
  • Chest tightness (retractions)

Asthma Attacks Causes

It is not fully understood exactly what causes asthma attacks and it varies from person to person. Generally, however, it is caused by some kind of airborne irritant.

As mentioned, these can vary from person to person, but common ones are allergens, including: pollen, dust mites, or animal dander. Other irritants, such as smoke, pollutions, chemical fumes or even strong odors such as perfumes, can trigger an attack. Certain illnesses that affect the respiratory system such as a cold, flu, and upper respiratory or sinus infections can also trigger asthma attacks.

What causes the actual attack is the spasms of the muscles around the airways, combined with general inflammation and swelling of the mucus membranes and excessive mucus production.

How is an Asthma Attack Treated?

What to do during an asthma attack

Stay calm when an asthma attack occurs. Get away from the trigger, if possible. If you have a rescue inhaler, use it as quickly as possible. When an attack does not ease after an inhaler is used, call 911 for immediate assistance.

Minimizing Asthma Attacks

Preventing or minimizing asthma attacks involves understanding your triggers. For some people, this would mean staying indoors on heavy air pollution days or avoiding allergens that may trigger an attack.

Approximately 3 million people suffer asthma attacks each year in the United States. Attacks can be seasonal when facilitated by an allergic reaction or situational when certain activities, such as extreme physical exertion, lead to an episode. Asthma is usually a manageable condition, although some attacks can be life-threatening.

Asthma Attacks Prevention

Fortunately, while we don’t know exactly what causes asthma attacks, we do know how to prevent them. The best way to do so is to avoid whatever triggers them. For allergies and airborne irritants, avoid them when possible. For dust and pollen, other steps can be taken, including dust-proof bedding, as well as air filters.

Allergies can also be managed through prescription and non prescription medication, such as nasal sprays and antihistamine pills. There are a plethora of natural remedies available, such as Neti pots, that many people have found help. Also, try to avoid strenuous activity outside when pollen counts are high.

If colds and flu are your trigger, eating healthily and moderate exercise can help, as this helps your body fight off cold and flu.

There are also a plethora of prescription drugs available to treat asthma specifically. You may be given a preventer or reliever inhaler, too. Your best bet, of course, is to talk to your doctor and make sure you take the medication as prescribed, even if things seem to be going well.

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Last Reviewed:
September 12, 2016
Last Updated:
November 10, 2017