An asthma attack occurs when the muscles surrounding the airways tighten (bronchoconstriction) and your airways become too narrow for you to breathe effectively. This is due to untreated airway inflammation and bronchoconstriction. An attack can happen suddenly if your asthma is not under control and you are exposed to one of your triggers. More commonly, your asthma symptoms gradually worsen over time and if you do not recognize the increase in your symptoms and take steps to gain good asthma control you can experience an asthma attack. This is why it is important to learn to recognize the symptoms of worsening asthma and how to treat them.

The most common symptoms of an asthma attack include:

  • excessive cough
  • excessive wheeze
  • excessive chest tightness
  • labored breathing/ gasping
  • sweating
  • anxiety and fear
  • decreased activity level
  • unable to complete sentences due to shortness of breath
  • blue lips or nail beds

How do you treat an attack?

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms you should take your reliever medication immediately and be seen by a doctor.  If your reliever medication does not give you relief quickly, you should call 911.  This situation can be very serious and life threatening and you do not want to waste time.  Treatment at the hospital will most likely be oral or intravenous medication (corticosteroids) as well as an inhaled reliever medication and oxygen if necessary.  Your progress may be monitored by doing peak flow measurements, spirometry and using oximetry to monitor you oxygen levels.

It is important to know that the majority of severe asthma episodes can be avoided by having good control of your asthma.  For more information about good asthma control and how to achieve it, please visit How Much is Too Much. Having an Asthma Action Plan will allow you to know what to do when your asthma symptoms begin to worsen and this can make the difference between improving your asthma control or ending up in the hospital with an asthma attack. A copy of the Asthma Action Plan can be downloaded. Please take it to your Doctor or Asthma Educator on your next visit.