This is how it feels to have an asthma attack

Facts | 7/1/2020
This is how it feels to have an asthma attack
Suddenly being out of breath can feel terrifying even if you know what to do. Three asthmatics tell about their experiences of having an asthma attack and how they cope with it.

Medication keeps my asthma attacks at bay

“15 years ago I had been ill with pneumonia and it left me with a long-term cough. One warm summer evening I was walking with my friend when suddenly I felt like I couldn’t breathe. The feeling of suffocating was so strong that I had to stop and sit down on a bench. My friend wanted to call an ambulance, but I asked her to wait. After calming down and resting a little, I felt better and she was able to walk me back home.

Still, the heavy feeling in my chest only passed after I took a hot shower at home. The next morning, I visited my doctor and I was asked to track down my peak flow measurements. The diagnosis was clear: I had asthma.

I have learned to recognise the first signs of an attack. Normally I start wheezing after exercising. But a couple of times I have woken up in the night feeling I can’t breathe. It’s always such a scary experience. That’s why I normally keep my rescue inhaler next to me on my nightstand. I also carry another one in my golf bag when I am out playing. These days I rarely need them because my asthma is well managed with regular preventive medication. Overall, asthma doesn’t much affect my daily life even though I exercise and play golf a lot. Only if I get a cold or a flu, my symptoms seem to become worse and it takes a while to get better. That’s why during the flu season, I double my medication and take a flu vaccination as my doctor has advised.”

Woman, 58

I have learned to stay calm

“At 13, in my school’s sports class, I noticed that I couldn’t compete with the others in the physical tests because I became easily short of breath. I should have been fit because I had been practising judo since I was 4.

I went to see a doctor and after several tests I was diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma. It’s an asthma type that’s normally triggered by strenuous exercise.

I am always on alert when I exercise. It feels distressing to know that if I can’t breathe, my brain won’t get enough oxygen and I might end up losing my consciousness.

During my military service we were marching back to the camp site. I was wearing a flak jacket that was very tight. It was limiting the movement of my lungs and in the afternoon the air was dusty along the road. I didn’t want to stop to search for my inhaler because I would have been left behind. So I just tried to keep going. Naturally the situation got worse and I ended up falling on my knees. Our team leader helped me to take the medicine and the vest out. Soon after that I was able to keep walking again.

I have learned to stay calm if I get an asthma attack. If I feel like my throat is narrowing and chest tightening, I normally slow down or stop and use my inhaler. If I wait a couple of minutes to let the medication take effect, I normally can keep doing what I was doing before the situation. Asthma doesn’t really affect my life that much because the attacks only come after strenuous aerobic exercise or in some exceptional circumstances.”

Man, 22

Allergies trigger my asthma symptoms

“I have allergic asthma that mostly causes asthma symptoms during the allergy season in the spring. I normally have a couple of asthma attacks a year. I have sometimes had asthma attacks during the night as well or if I have spent time in a place full of dust or mold. Besides pollen allergy, I have several food allergies, too.

When I get an asthma attack, first I feel my throat tighten and my breathing becomes difficult. Then comes the panic.

I think that often my asthma and allergies are mixed and sometimes it’s hard to tell whether my symptoms are purely caused by asthma or more by a severe allergic reaction, or anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis normally means a need for calling an ambulance. I also carry an Epipen with me.

Once I was having a breakfast at a hotel when I started to cough a lot. I felt that I couldn’t breathe because my throat was swelling up. Even the inhaler didn’t seem to help much because I couldn’t inhale enough. It was probably an allergic reaction that led to an asthma attack. It took several hours to recover after it.

I am mindful of my asthma triggers but don’t let the asthma itself limit my life. Normally the reliever inhaler comes to the rescue and makes me feel better. I tend to panic easily, so I try to stay calm and remember that the attacks always pass even though at that moment it can feel terrifying.”

Woman, 35

How to prevent an asthma attack

  • Follow your asthma medication plan to make sure your asthma is well managed with preventive medication. When your asthma is properly under control, you shouldn’t experience asthma attacks.
  • There are different asthma types that all have different characteristics and triggers. Knowing your personal triggers can help you to prevent an asthma attack.
  • If you experience asthma attacks or have regular symptoms of asthma, it might be time to book a check-up with your healthcare provider. This will help you to make sure you have the right type of medication for the right symptoms and situation.

By Mirkka Helkkula

Photo by iStock

Read more:

How to deal with an asthma attack

Overcoming your fear of an asthma attack

Get the most out of your peak flow diary

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Orion Corporation is a globally operating Finnish pharmaceutical company. We develop, manufacture and market human and veterinary pharmaceuticals and active pharmaceutical ingredients. The dry powder inhaler developed at Orion is in the core of our respiratory therapy area.