What is asthma attack?

Asthma Attack

Asthma attack: Overview

During an asthma attack, the airways swell and narrow. This makes it hard to breathe. Severe asthma attacks can be dangerous. But you can help prevent these attacks by keeping your asthma under control and treating symptoms before they get bad. Symptoms include being short of breath, having chest tightness, coughing, and wheezing. Noting and treating these symptoms can also help you avoid trips to the emergency room.

If you notice any problems or new symptoms, get medical treatment right away.

Asthma attack

An asthma attack (also called an acute asthma episode, flare-up, or exacerbation) is a sudden worsening of asthma symptoms, including shortness of breath, chest tightness, wheezing, and coughing.

Although asthma attacks may seem to occur suddenly, they can occur after several days of symptoms getting worse. Symptoms may be mild, moderate, or severe. Episodes can be brief (about an hour) or can last for several days.

Asthma attacks can be serious. But they can usually be treated at home by using quick-relief medicine and an increased dose of controller medicine. For severe asthma attacks, you may need to contact a doctor or seek emergency care.

What are the symptoms of an asthma attack?

When you have an asthma attack, airflow to the lungs is reduced.

During an asthma attack:

  • It may be hard to breathe. You may feel short of breath. And your breathing may be rapid or shallow.
  • You may feel like you can't take a deep breath (chest tightness). Children with chest tightness may complain of a stomachache.
  • You may make whistling noises when you breathe (wheezing).
  • You may cough.

Asthma symptoms may start suddenly or happen up to several hours after you have been exposed to triggers, such as tobacco smoke or animal dander. In some cases, symptoms may not occur until 4 to 12 hours after contact. Although severe attacks may seem to occur suddenly, they usually occur after several days of increasing symptoms.

How is an asthma attack treated?

Quick-relief medicines are given to relax the airways so you can breathe easier. Corticosteroid medicines are used to reduce inflammation. They may be inhaled or given as pills or a shot. Some asthma attacks may need treatment in the hospital. You may get extra oxygen or help with breathing if needed.

How can you prevent an asthma attack?

There's no certain way to prevent asthma. But you can reduce your risk of asthma attacks by avoiding things that cause them. For example, don't smoke. Try not to exercise outside when it's cold and dry. And stay inside when pollution levels are high. Using your asthma controller medicine helps prevent asthma attacks.

How is an asthma attack diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask questions about your symptoms, when they occur, and your past health. You will have a physical exam. A breathing test may be done to find out how well your lungs work.

How can you care for an asthma attack?

  • Follow your asthma action plan to prevent and treat attacks. If you don't have an asthma action plan, work with your doctor to create one.
  • Take your asthma medicines exactly as prescribed. Talk to your doctor right away if you have any questions about how to take them.
    • Use your quick-relief medicine when you have symptoms of an asthma attack. Some people need to use quick-relief medicine before they exercise to prevent asthma symptoms. Albuterol is a quick-relief medicine that is often used. In some cases, a certain type of controller inhaler is used as a quick-relief medicine. Ask your doctor what to use for quick relief.
    • Take your controller medicine. If you have symptoms often, you will likely need to take it every day. Controller medicine usually includes an inhaled corticosteroid. The goal is to prevent problems before they occur.
    • If your doctor prescribed corticosteroid pills to use during an attack, take them exactly as prescribed. It may take hours for the pills to work, but they may make the episode shorter and help you breathe better.
    • Keep your quick-relief medicine with you at all times.
  • Talk to your doctor before using other medicines. Some medicines, such as aspirin, can cause asthma attacks in some people.
  • If you have a peak flow meter, use it to check how well you are breathing. This can help you predict when an asthma attack is going to occur. Then you can take medicine to prevent the asthma attack or make it less severe.
  • Do not smoke or allow others to smoke around you. Avoid smoky places. Smoking makes asthma worse. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor about stop-smoking programs and medicines. These can increase your chances of quitting for good.
  • Learn what triggers an asthma attack for you, and avoid the triggers when you can. Common triggers include colds, smoke, air pollution, dust, pollen, mold, pets, cockroaches, stress, and cold air.
  • Avoid infections such as COVID-19, colds, and the flu. Wash your hands often. Talk to your doctor about getting a pneumococcal vaccine. If you have had one before, ask your doctor if you need a second dose. Get a flu vaccine every fall. Stay up to date on your COVID-19 vaccines.

What is an asthma attack?

When asthma symptoms suddenly occur, it's called an asthma attack. It's also called an acute asthma episode, flare-up, or exacerbation. Attacks can be brief (about an hour) or last for several days. They may be seasonal (similar to hay fever) or occur during any season.

Asthma attack: When to call

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You have severe trouble breathing.

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • Your symptoms do not get better after you have followed your asthma action plan.
  • You have new or worse trouble breathing.
  • Your coughing and wheezing get worse.
  • You cough up dark brown or bloody mucus (sputum).
  • You have a new or higher fever.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • You need to use quick-relief medicine on more than 2 days a week within a month (unless it is just for exercise).
  • You cough more deeply or more often, especially if you notice more mucus or a change in the color of your mucus.
  • You are not getting better as expected.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.

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