Asthma Attack


More than 25 million people in the United States live with asthma. Of those, more than 10 million report having had one or more asthma attacks in the past year. Asthma attacks result in 1.6 million emergency department visits and 178,000 hospitalizations each year.
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What is an asthma attack?

An asthma attack occurs when an asthma trigger causes the lungs to become inflamed and swollen. You may also hear an asthma attack referred to as an asthma flare, asthma exacerbation, or asthma episode.   The muscles around the breathing tubes tighten or spasm and more mucus than usual is produced. All these work to make the breathing tubes narrower and make it harder to get air into the lungs. If your asthma symptoms are worsening, you may be having an asthma attack. Any of these signs indicate the need for prompt medical treatment. An asthma attack can be a life-threatening emergency and may require medical care or emergency services.

How do I recognize the early signs of an asthma attack?

When asking yourself “Am I having an asthma attack?”, you can usually tell by looking at your body’s reaction. The following are some common warning signs of an upcoming asthma attack:

  1. Your throat becomes itchy. This will cause you to cough more than usual. You might also notice a runny nose.
  2. Breathing gets harder – this means that there is less air getting into your lungs making it harder for you to breathe. You may have to use stomach muscles to help you breathe and you may hear a whistling sound or wheeze when you breathe.
  3. You may then develop tightness or pain in your chest, in addition to a cough and wheezing. These are all signs pointing to an asthma attack.

It is crucial that people with asthma learn to understand their triggers and to avoid them when possible.

Middle aged woman sitting on her couch and reaching for her asthma inhaler with one hand while holding her airways with the other hand.

What causes an asthma attack?

Asthma attacks are caused by swelling and airway inflammation and mucus in the airways. These attacks are normally triggered by an environmental or external factor. Common triggers that may lead to an asthma attack include:

  • Indoor allergens: mold, pet dander, dust mites, cockroaches
  • Outdoor allergens: pollen, mold
  • Irritants: tobacco smoke, diesel exhaust, air pollution
  • Respiratory infections: colds, flu, sinus infections, COVID-19
  • Exercise
  • Stress
  • Cold air or sudden changes in temperature
  • Strong smells
  • Strong emotions such as laughing or crying
  • Hormonal changes
  • Humidity

What do I do if I have an asthma attack?

Any person diagnosed with asthma should work with their doctor to develop an Asthma Action Plan.  These plans outline everyday treatment. according to what zone you are in based on your peak flow meter. An Asthma Action Plan spells out:

  • how to treat your asthma daily
  • how to handle situations such as exercise or when you have a cold or virus
  • what to do when symptoms get worse, such as when you are having an asthma attack

Treatment for an acute asthma attack varies person-to-person, but often involves asthma medicines, including quick-relief albuterol inhalers. Make sure you understand when and why to use your asthma medication. If you don’t have a personal Asthma Action Plan or are unsure of what to do, seek medical attention or dial 9-1-1.

Photo of boy laying in bed holding a mask for a respiratory treatment due to a nighttime asthma attack.

What if I can’t afford my asthma medication?

Asthma attack: FAQs

Here are some of the most asked questions regarding an asthma attack.

What are warning signs of an asthma attack?

Warning signs can vary from one person to another. They can include:

  • a tickle in the throat or chest
  • a sharp or sudden cough
  • a feeling of extreme tiredness
  • the feeling that you simply can’t get a good, deep breath

What happens if an asthma attack goes untreated?

Remember, asthma attacks are caused by airway swelling and inflammation. The point of treating an acute asthma attack is to stop that process of swelling and inflammation in its tracks. Without treatment, the airways may become increasingly swollen and inflamed making it increasingly difficult to breathe. As this happens, you may even stop wheezing as there is not enough air movement to produce wheezing. This is known as a “silent chest,” and it is an ominous sign requiring immediate emergency care. In addition, you may develop:

  • blue fingernails or lips (due to lack of oxygen)
  • have difficulty talking except in short phrases
  • your chest, ribs and/or collarbone may be sticking out

All these are signs that you need medical care right away.

Can you die from an asthma attack?

Sadly, the answer is yes, you can die from an asthma attack. In 2019, there were 3,524 deaths from asthma, including 178 children. That means nearly 10 people in the U.S. die each day from asthma. That is why it is essential to seek treatment for an asthma attack and use your quick-relief medicine as directed. Many deaths from asthma are avoidable with proper treatment and care.

Can a child have an asthma attack while sleeping?

Asthma symptoms at night are extremely common. In fact, many people with asthma experience nighttime symptoms at least once a week and some every night. This is commonly referred to as “nocturnal asthma.” It shouldn’t be surprising when you think about asthma triggers, however. Remember indoor allergens are a common trigger for an asthma attack, so sleep is primetime for exposure to these allergens. For children with asthma, it is essential to reduce their exposure to environmental triggers and teach them how to recognize asthma symptoms.

What to do for an asthma attack when an inhaler is not available?

Severe asthma attacks can be terrifying. What if you don’t have access to a quick-relief inhaler? While having a quick-relief inhaler for an acute asthma attack is normally the first approach, when you don’t have your inhaler, there are things you can do.

  1. Sit upright – this helps keep your airways open
  2. Keep calm – panicking can worsen your asthma symptoms
  3. Regulate your breathing – try to take slow deep breaths, in through your nose, out through your mouth.
  4. Avoid triggers – if you know what triggered your symptoms, get away from it.
  5. Seek emergency treatment – if none of the above helps, call 9-1-1.

While you are waiting for help, you may have a family member bring you a cup of hot coffee. While coffee does not treat asthma attacks, it does have mild bronchodilator properties and may provide some temporary relief.

Is there an emergency home remedy for an asthma attack?

If you were to do a search for an emergency home remedy for an asthma attack, you would find all sorts of answers. Unfortunately, none of these are supported by research. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health is conducting research on complementary approaches to asthma treatment, so that may change down the road. But for now, work closely with an asthma specialist to develop an Asthma Action Plan that will help you manage your asthma. With proper care and medications, asthma attacks can be managed; people with asthma can lead full lives.

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