An asthma attack ("asthma exasperation") occurs when the airways in your lungs become significantly inflamed and constricted. While you may experience asthma flare-ups for these same reasons, an attack is much more severe. In this instance, the airway muscles contract and narrow, while excess mucus builds up in your bronchial tubes. Altogether, this constriction makes it hard to breathe.
If you have asthma, your doctor has likely provided you with a treatment plan to control your symptoms and prevent an asthma attack. However, anyone who has asthma is at risk of having an asthma attack at some point. This can quickly become a life-threatening emergency event, so it's important to know the signs as well as what to do if an asthma attack happens to you or a loved one.
When you have too much inflammation in your lungs, you can develop an asthma attack as your airways become constricted. While you can't necessarily "see" airway inflammation and constriction, an asthma attack may cause the following symptoms:
Asthma attacks don't occur like they do on television or movies. These aren't usually sudden events, but are instead the culmination of severe inflammation and constriction that builds up over time. While certain things can trigger an attack, such as exercise or allergies, the underlying issues are already there.
One of the most common causes of an asthma attack is inadequate treatment. A comprehensive asthma treatment plan addresses both the inflammation and constriction in the airways, while also treating your triggers. Over time, treatment reduces inflammation so you won't experience the subsequent constriction that can lead to breathing problems. Furthermore, once your triggers are identified, avoidance or treatment may help reduce asthma symptom-causing inflammation. For example, severe allergies might be treated with antihistamines or allergy shots that could in turn treat asthma symptoms, too.
Some of the most common triggers of an asthma attack include:
Another cause of an asthma attack is the failure to use your rescue inhaler in time. As a rule of thumb, you'll want to use your inhaler any time you exhibit any signs of breathing difficulties, such as wheezing and tightness in your chest. The medication works quickly to open up your airways so that symptoms improve. If you're starting to find that you use your rescue inhaler more than a few times a week though, this could be a sign that you need long-term asthma medications to keep lung inflammation at bay.
If you suspect an asthma attack, you will first need to measure your peak-expiratory reading, which estimates the amount of air that's flowing through your lungs. 80 to 100 percent is ideal, while a measurement of between 50 to 79 percent indicates the need for a quick-acting asthma medication, which usually comes in the form of a rescue inhaler.
Taking your rescue inhaler ought to be your first step for treatment. If your symptoms don't improve after several minutes, then you may be having a severe asthma attack and need emergency medical treatment.
A mild asthma attack may be treated at home via your rescue inhaler. However, if your symptoms don't improve, it may be time to go the emergency room. You should also seek emergency medical help in the case of a severe asthma attack—you don't want to self-treat severe episodes on your own.
Call for emergency medical assistance if you or a loved one:
The best way to prevent asthma attacks is by following your prescribed asthma treatment plan. If you have asthma symptoms more than a few times a month, you may need a long-term controller medication, in addition to your rescue inhaler. In addition to your treatment plan, you'll want to avoid your asthma triggers whenever possible.
Asthma attacks can be manageable when identified and treated early. However, severe asthma attacks can warrant a visit to the hospital. Some cases may even be deadly. Such risks underline the importance of understanding your condition and how to treat it, but you should also notify your loved ones about your treatment plan so they can help you if needed.