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What to do During an Asthma Attack

June 15, 2018

Child with asthma and inhaler

As always, if you are experiencing an emergency, call 9-1-1 immediately.

Asthma is a costly condition to live with, and that’s not just the physical costs that asthmatics tend to live with day in, day out. And let’s be clear, those physical costs—inflamed and swollen airways, increased mucous production, and struggling to breathe during an attack—are bad enough. In fact, the condition is so common that the combined amount of sick days, missed school, and trips to the ER added up to $5.9 billion across the country. That’s breathtaking.

What is Asthma?

Simply put, asthma is a chronic disease that inflames and narrows a person’s airways, making breathing difficult or sometimes impossible. The inflammation isn’t constant; most of the time, an asthma sufferer can go about their daily business just fine without an attack. It’s when those attacks hit—often triggered by a foreign substance or even stress—that the trouble begins. Tissues in the throat and chest begin to swell, surrounding muscles tighten, leading to narrowed or obstructed airways. It’s a potentially deadly chain reaction that ultimately leads to the labored and panicked breathing that’s so commonly associated with the condition.

Triggers for an asthma attack range from common inhaled substances, like pollen, chemicals, smoke, and dust. Sometimes those triggers come from somewhere else. Stress in your life? That’s a trigger. Extreme swing in the weather? Trigger. Even a trip to the gym for some exercise can trigger an attack.

Who Does it Affect?

Asthma is an equal-opportunity condition and can affect people of all ages. Most commonly, though, it manifests during childhood. Of those 22 million asthma sufferers in the US, 6 million are children. In fact, young children who have respiratory infections or who wheeze are at the highest risk of developing asthma, especially if those risk factors continue beyond age six. Other factors include seasonal allergies, eczema, or hereditary factors. If your parents have asthma, there’s a chance it’ll carry over to you.

Knowing the Signs

Maybe you’re sitting around a campfire with friends. Maybe it’s a pollen-choked spring day and you’re trying to enjoy the beautiful outdoors. You could even be browsing some dusty old antiques, when suddenly you start to feel a flare-up. All the signs are there:

  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Chest tightness
  • Shortness of breath

These are classic signs of a full-on asthma attack, and should immediately be treated. If you’ve developed a plan with your doctor, you might already have a quick-acting inhaler to counter the symptoms. If not, you’ll want to call your doctor as soon as you are able.

When is Asthma an Emergency?

Severe cases of asthma are thought to be an entirely different type of condition, rather than just a stronger version of milder asthma. While only 10 percent of asthma sufferers experience severe cases, it’s still important to know the difference between a mild attack and a potentially life-threatening one. Seek medical attention right away if you’re experiencing any of the following:

  • Severe breathlessness or wheezing, especially at night or early in the morning
  • The inability to speak more than short phrases due to shortness of breath
  • Having to strain your chest muscles to breathe
  • No improvement after using a quick-acting (rescue) inhaler
  • Lips or fingers turning blue
  • Feeling lightheaded or dizzy
  • Low peak flow reading (if using a peak flow meter)

This sort of attack may require emergency room visits and hospitalization. They could even be fatal if left untreated.

When Seconds Count

Every second you’re deprived of oxygen is crucial, and requires fast, skilled intervention. Saint Luke’s Community Hospitals employs an innovative model and streamlined process that allows for quick access to treatment, with most patients getting from door to doctor in less than 10 minutes. And, with three locations open in the KC metro and more to come, you’re sure to find a community hospital near you.

For additional expert care, Saint Luke’s highly experienced team of Pulmonary Specialists can provide a full spectrum of treatment options to help you breathe easy again.

Though we wish it would, asthma doesn’t just go away overnight. It’s a long-term condition, so it’s important to connect with your doctor and work out a plan to help manage it. Learn your triggers, get help to quit smoking (if you do), and always take your medication as directed.