Overview – What happens during an asthma attack

Asthma is a condition in which your airways narrow and swell and may produce extra mucus. This can make breathing difficult and trigger coughing, a whistling sound (wheezing) when you breathe out and shortness of breath.

For some people, asthma is a minor nuisance. For others, it can be a major problem that interferes with daily activities and may lead to a life-threatening asthma attack.

Asthma can’t be cured, but its symptoms can be controlled. Because asthma often changes over time, it’s important that you work with your doctor to track your signs and symptoms and adjust your treatment as needed.


Asthma Symptoms

Asthma symptoms vary from person to person. You may have infrequent asthma attacks, have symptoms only at certain times — such as when exercising — or have symptoms all the time.

Asthma signs and symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness or pain
  • Wheezing when exhaling, which is a common sign of asthma in children
  • Trouble sleeping caused by Shortness of breath, coughing or wheezing
  • Coughing or wheezing attacks that are worsened by a respiratory virus, such as a cold or the flu

Signs that your asthma is probably worsening include:

  • Asthma signs and symptoms that are more frequent and bothersome
  • Increasing difficulty breathing, as measured with a device used to check how well your lungs are working (peak flow meter)
  • The need to use a quick-relief inhaler more often

For some people, asthma signs and symptoms flare up in certain situations:

  • Exercise-induced asthma, which may be worse when the air is cold and dry
  • Occupational asthma, triggered by workplace irritants such as chemical fumes, gases or dust
  • Allergy-induced asthma, triggered by airborne substances, such as pollen, mold spores, cockroach waste, or particles of skin and dried saliva shed by pets (pet dander)

When to see a doctor

Seek emergency treatment

Severe asthma attacks can be life-threatening. Work with your doctor to determine what to do when your signs and symptoms worsen — and when you need emergency treatment. Signs of an asthma emergency include:

  • Rapid worsening of shortness of breath or wheezing
  • No improvement even after using a quick-relief inhaler
  • Shortness of breath when you are doing minimal physical activity

Contact your doctor

See your doctor:

  • If you think you have asthma. If you have frequent coughing or wheezing that lasts more than a few days or any other signs or symptoms of asthma, see your doctor. Treating asthma early may prevent long-term lung damage and help keep the condition from getting worse over time.
  • To monitor your asthma after diagnosis. If you know you have asthma, work with your doctor to keep it under control. Good long-term control helps you feel better from day to day and can prevent a life-threatening asthma attack.
  • If your asthma symptoms get worse. Contact your doctor right away if your medication doesn’t seem to ease your symptoms or if you need to use your quick-relief inhaler more often.Don’t take more medication than prescribed without consulting your doctor first. Overusing asthma medication can cause side effects and may make your asthma worse.
  • To review your treatment. Asthma often changes over time. Meet with your doctor regularly to discuss your symptoms and make any needed treatment adjustments.

FAQs About Asthma

What is asthma? Asthma is a chronic respiratory condition that causes the airways in the lungs to become inflamed and narrow, leading to difficulty breathing. It is often triggered by various factors such as allergies, respiratory infections, exercise, and exposure to irritants.

What are the common symptoms of asthma? Common symptoms include wheezing (a high-pitched whistling sound when breathing), shortness of breath, coughing (especially at night or early morning), and chest tightness. These symptoms can range from mild to severe.

What causes asthma? The exact cause of asthma is not fully understood, but it is thought to result from a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Certain genetic predispositions can make some individuals more susceptible to developing asthma, and exposure to allergens, pollutants, and respiratory infections can trigger or exacerbate symptoms.

Can asthma be cured? Currently, there is no cure for asthma, but it can be managed effectively with proper medical treatment and lifestyle adjustments. With the right approach, many people with asthma can lead normal, active lives.

How is asthma diagnosed? Asthma diagnosis involves a combination of medical history, physical examination, lung function tests (such as spirometry), and sometimes allergy tests. These tests help doctors determine the severity of the condition and create an appropriate treatment plan.

What are asthma triggers? Asthma triggers are factors that can provoke or worsen asthma symptoms. Common triggers include pollen, dust mites, pet dander, mold, respiratory infections, cold air, smoke, strong odors, and exercise.

What is an asthma action plan? An asthma action plan is a personalized written document created by a healthcare professional to help individuals manage their asthma effectively. It includes information about medications, symptoms, triggers, and steps to take in case of worsening symptoms or an asthma attack.

What is an asthma attack? An asthma attack, also known as an asthma exacerbation, is a sudden worsening of asthma symptoms. During an attack, the airways become severely inflamed and narrowed, making it difficult to breathe. It can be life-threatening if not treated promptly.

What medications are used to treat asthma? Medications for asthma include long-term controllers (like inhaled corticosteroids, long-acting beta-agonists) that help manage inflammation and prevent symptoms, and quick-relief or rescue medications (like short-acting beta-agonists) that provide rapid relief during an asthma attack.

Can asthma be prevented? While asthma cannot be completely prevented, some steps can help reduce the risk of developing asthma or experiencing severe symptoms. These include avoiding known triggers, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and managing allergies effectively.

Remember, the information provided here is general in nature. If you have specific concerns or questions about asthma, it’s always best to consult with a healthcare professional who can provide personalized guidance based on your individual situation.

Asthma Inhaler


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