Updated: Aug 25, 2021
Asthma is often a terrifying experience for those who suffer severe attacks. You feel like you can breathe as you are gasping for air. This chronic, long-term lung condition never fully resolves, yet it can be well managed with proper treatment for many patients. However, at the same time, asthma attacks, also known as exacerbations or acute bronchospasm, will occur periodically.
How long asthma attacks last varies from person to person. Mild attacks sometimes only last a few minutes, while severe flare-ups can last for days with waxing and waning symptoms. Wide variations in symptoms also accompany asthma attacks. The attack length often depends on how severe inflammation is and how the patient responds to treatment. Without treatment, attacks will continue, seemingly without end, so it’s important for those who have asthma to receive proper care. The earlier you receive help, the sooner your symptoms will dissipate.
What is an Asthma Attack?
During an asthma attack, the bronchial tubes, which are the passages that allow air to enter and leave the lungs, become narrow and inflamed. Mucus produced by inflammation fills the narrowed airways, making it difficult to breathe. Some patients experience wheezing and rattling in the chest.
During an asthma attack, the airways become inflamed. They narrow as the muscles surrounding them constrict. Mucus produced by the inflammation fills the narrowed passageways. Airflow becomes partially or even completely blocked. Asthma affects the lungs’ larger and smaller airways and has a genetic component, meaning that if one or both of your parents has allergies or asthma, you have a good chance of suffering from it too.
What Does an Asthma Attack Feel Like?
Ask 10 people what an asthma attack feels like, and you’ll get 10 different answers. Everyone’s experience is different. The one word that is commonly applied to asthma attacks is that they are awful. Other common words used are struggling or fighting for air. Sometimes an element of fear is involved too when sufferers feel that they can take in enough air. When breathing becomes difficult, the person experiencing the attack may have trouble moving or thinking clearly and may not be able to tell others around him or her what is happening or what they need. The following are examples of how asthma attacks feel to some sufferers:
Breathing through a squished straw
The air is being squeezed out of me
My chest feels tight and inflamed
It’s a cough centered in my throat as I try to get air into my lungs
My body feels out of control
I can only focus on getting oxygen into my lungs and nothing else
I feel horrible and helpless
It feels like half of my lungs are gone
Asthma is like a heavy weight on my chest
I feel like I am choking or drowning
What Causes Asthma Attacks?
Asthma sufferers have an overly active immune system that causes airways to become inflamed and swollen. Similar to the length of attacks, triggers also vary among people. In some severe cases, what triggers asthma attacks cannot be identified. The most common triggers are:
Pollen, mold, and dust mites
Cold, dry air
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
Pet dander and saliva
Environmental pollutants, including chemicals, wood smoke, paint fumes, and other strong odors
Asthma often worsens if you have respiratory infections such as the common cold, influenza, or sinusitis. Strenuous exercises can also trigger attacks as well as changing weather conditions. Even certain foods can trigger asthma in some people.
What are the Symptoms of an Asthma Attack?
Warning signs of a possible asthma attack include a cough that gets worse, shortness of breath, particularly if it occurs at night, a diminished exercise tolerance, and an increased need for rescue medication. Common asthma symptoms include:
Wheezing, which sounds like whistling or squeaky sounds while breathing
Shortness of breath
Chest tightness or pain
Low peak expiratory flow (PEF) readings
Failure to respond to use of a rescue inhaler
Note that symptoms vary and that one person’s symptoms may vary markedly from yours. For some people, a cough is the only symptom. Many people with mild to moderate asthma have no symptoms in between attacks. Working with your doctor will help identify your asthma attack symptoms.
Severe asthma attacks have more symptoms, in addition to the common ones listed above. These include:
Extreme shortness of breath
Extremely tight chest
Flared nostrils and pursed lips
Bluish lips and fingernails
A need to sit upright
Severe asthma attacks can lead to medical emergencies. Anyone experiencing fast breathing where the skin sucks in between the chest plate and/or the rib bones, stomach or ribs moving in and out deeply and rapidly, an expanded chest that doesn’t deflate when exhaling or cyanosis, should seek immediate medical attention. If you take medication and your symptoms don’t improve or worsen, you may also require emergency treatment.
What Happens During an Asthma Attack?
When you breathe normally, your airways are fully open, which allows air to move freely into and out of your lungs. Asthma changes airways in several different ways. First, they become overly reactive and more sensitive to your asthma triggers. When this occurs, the lining of the bronchial tubes and lungs well become inflamed. Mucus clogs the airways, and at the same time, the muscles around it tighten, causing bronchospasms. Lungs begin to have difficulty, with moving air out particularly difficult. Breathing not only becomes difficult but stressful too because airways have narrowed significantly.
How to Stop an Asthma Attack
Learning what to do in an asthma attack is particularly important for patients who have developed asthma recently as well as for caregivers who may not be sure of what they need to do. The first line of defense is working with your doctor to develop a management plan that includes medication and ways to help you avoid triggers to minimize the possibility of attacks. Your treatment plan will likely change over time as asthma often changes over time, so expect periodic adjustments to keep daily symptoms under control. Asthma that isn’t well-controlled leads to regular attacks as lingering lung inflammation means you could have a flare-up at any time.
Minimizing triggers can go a long way toward managing asthma symptoms. Eliminating allergens at home is essential for many asthma sufferers. If dust is a trigger, clean your home frequently, wash bedding in hot water, encase mattresses in hypo-allergenic enclosures and remove carpets and heavy drapes from bedrooms. If you are affected by pollen, stay indoors, close windows during high pollen counts, and use air conditioning whenever possible. If pet dander is a trigger, you may need to avoid animals entirely or take preventative medicine if you know you will come into contact with animals. Pet owners should keep their four-legged friends out of bedrooms and make sure that they clean their coats often.
Medications as a Preventative
Bronchodilators, anti-inflammatory medications, and immunotherapy can help manage asthma and help prevent attacks. Inhalers are bronchodilators and include beta-agonists such as albuterol, metaproterenol, and pirbuterol. Doctors prescribe them for mild, occasional symptoms as well as rescue medications to prevent an attack. Other bronchodilators, such as salmeterol and theophylline, are prescribed as controlled to reduce the number of attacks.
Anti-inflammatory medications are also controllers that patients take regularly regardless of whether they have asthma symptoms. These medications reduce inflammation that reduces mucus production and constricted airways. Doctors may prescribe several other anti-inflammatories and corticosteroids for more severe asthma.
Some asthma sufferers also benefit from regular immunotherapy injections if their triggers involve sensitivity to indoor allergens. Immunotherapy seems to work best for those with mild to moderate asthma.
Learning how to help an asthma attack also means anticipating possible episodes. Asthma patients should constantly monitor their symptoms and peak-flow readings if they have a home peak flow meter to help identify when attacks may be imminent. When symptoms flare, follow your asthma plan’s instructions for using your inhaler. Peak flow readings of 51 percent to 79 percent signal that you should use your rescue medications.
When to Seek Emergency Treatment
Some people wonder if you can die from an asthma attack. If it’s severe enough, you certainly can die. Generally, when experiencing an asthma attack, it’s best to remain calm and use your medications as prescribed.
For those rare instances when you experience an attack and don’t have the necessary medication with you, stopping an attack is possible. Learning how to stop an asthma attack without an inhaler involves removing yourself immediately from triggers. If you can’t completely remove yourself from the trigger, breathe through some cloth or a mask to filter the air. Sit upright as much as possible to allow your lungs to take in the most air. Sip a hot, caffeinated beverage to help open your airways.
Don’t delay calling 911 if your asthma begins to feel completely out of control. Getting help quickly can mean the difference between life and death. Once you have had a severe asthma attack, you are at risk of having more. Seek immediate medical attention if you have the following symptoms:
Severe wheezing or breathlessness, especial at night or early in the morning
Inability to speak more than a few words at a time because of breathlessness
You strain your chest muscles to breathe
No improvement after using a rescue inhaler
Low peak flow readings
How Centric Healthcare Can Help
Asthma attacks can be particularly worrisome for seniors who have a variety of medical conditions. Frequent attacks can exacerbate some conditions and diminish the overall quality of life. Among the services we offer is medication therapy management. As an essential component of home health care medication therapy management can ensure that you or your loved one will have the proper dosage of medication to control asthma episodes. Our trained staff can recognize changes in health that require a doctor’s evaluation. These services can bring you peace of mind, knowing that your needs are being thoroughly monitored. We can also customize home senior care services that will meet your needs.
Contact Central Healthcare today to learn more about how we can help manage asthma or provide you with other home health services.