From wheezing to tightness in your chest, when something sets off an asthma attack, symptoms can come on suddenly. We take a look at what’s happening in your body when you have one, what triggers it and the immediate actions you should take.
Whether it’s a waft of perfume, a sprint to the bus stop or airborne particles, anyone with asthma can become triggered unexpectedly. When your body reacts suddenly and severely, you may feel the acute worsening of symptoms commonly referred to as an asthma attack. It’s your body’s way of telling you to take action.
While an asthma attack is experienced differently by everyone, common symptoms of a mild to moderate case are wheezing, coughing and difficulty speaking. Some people also say they feel pressure on their chest and may experience a sense of panic. Others say it feels as though their airways are shrinking and they can’t get enough oxygen “through the pipes”.
An asthma attack is always a sign that you should visit your doctor to revise your treatment plan. While many instances can be resolved with a reliever inhaler, a severe attack can be life threatening and may require a trip to the hospital.
What’s going on and why?
Physically, there are several things going on when symptoms flare up. During an asthma attack a person’s airways become constricted in response to an allergen or physical or emotional trigger. As the lining becomes irritated and swollen, tightening of the muscles around the airways can also further restrict breathing. Sometimes mucus can form, making that precious lungful of air even more elusive.
Where some people may have a severe reaction to irritants such as animal dander or pollution, those same substances might not bother others. For some, it may be physical or even emotional stress that sets them off. However, if you come down with a cold or other virus, you are particularly susceptible to worsening asthma symptoms.
The acute symptoms of an asthma attack can vary in duration, and resolving them depends on their severity, the effectiveness of your medication and whether you’re able to manage your triggers. Once the acute phase is under control, you might feel after-effects, such as increased sensitivity, for hours or even a few days.
What to do?
Having an asthma attack can be scary, but the important thing is to stay calm and take action. Remove yourself from the trigger, reach for your reliever inhaler and, in serious cases, seek emergency care.
If you’ve already used your reliever inhaler several times but your shortness of breath isn’t improving, it might be time to head to the hospital. If you are having difficulty speaking more than a couple of words, your lips are turning blue or you’re getting confused, the situation could be life-threatening. In this case, you or someone with you should call for emergency help right away.
While having an asthma attack can be unsettling, the reality is that most types of asthma can be well controlled with medication. Using a preventer inhaler for daily management, and ensuring that you’re using it properly, should mean you’re reaching for your reliever inhaler a lot less.
Again, if you experience an asthma attack, check with your healthcare provider. When your asthma is treated well, you should be able to enjoy daily life free of worry. With many options in terms of medications, treatment regimes and tips on avoiding triggers, there’s every reason to minimise negative experiences and maximise those that keep you happy and healthy.
By Sarah Hudson
Photo by iStock
Jackson, D.J. et al., (2011), Asthma exacerbations: Origin, effect, and prevention, Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, Volume 128, Issue 6, 1165 – 1174, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaci.2011.10.024
Orion invests in research and development of treatment options for people with asthma and COPD while also developing the design and usability of the Easyhaler® inhaler device platform. The focus is on safety and quality in each step of the product life cycle while taking care of the environment. All aspects of sustainability - social, economic and environmental - are carefully considered in the whole product life cycle. Sustainability is entwined in the whole process from R&D through manufacturing, including patient use and the disposal of old inhalers.