How to Handle Asthma Attacks

Recognizing and Treating Early Signs of Asthma Attacks

Asthma attacks can be frightening; both for those having them, as well as for their loved ones who watch them go through the experience. As a friend or family, you may feel helpless or lost when some you care for starts to wheeze, hack or struggle to breathe. It can be daunting, but there are some positive steps you can take to make a difference in the outcome, or at least help ease your loved one’s experience.

What is an Asthma Attack?

Asthma is an inflammation and obstruction of the bronchial tubes, used to help the lung inhale and exhale air. During an asthma attack, the muscles around the bronchial tubes contract, tighten and swell, which narrows the air passages. As a result, breathing is restricted and life threatening.

Common triggers of asthma attacks include exposure to allergens (i.e. grass, trees, pollen, etc), irritants in the air (i.e. smoke or fragrant smells), illnesses (i.e. flu), stress, extreme weather conditions (extreme heat or cold), or physical exertion and exercise. Learning to recognize when you or someone you love is having an asthma attack and knowing how to treat it can help save a life.

Identifying an Asthma Attack

Early warning signs occur before or at the beginning of an asthma attack. Generally, these changes are not severe enough to hinder daily activities. But by recognizing these signs, you can stop an asthma attack or prevent one from getting worse.

Early warning signs and symptoms include:

  • Frequent cough, especially at night
  • Losing your breath easily or shortness of breath
  • Feeling fatigued or weak when exercising
  • Wheezing or coughing during or after exercise
  • Decreases or changes in lung function as measured on a peak flow meter
  • Signs of a cold or allergies (including sneezing, running nose, cough, nasal congestion, sore throat, or headache)
  • Trouble sleeping with evening asthma

Other symptoms of an asthma attack may include:

  • Severe wheezing when breathing in or out
  • Rapid breathing
  • Chest tightness or pressure
  • Tightened neck and/or chest muscles, otherwise known as retractions
  • Pale, sweaty face
  • Blue lips or fingernails

The severity of an asthma attack can escalate rapidly, so it is important to identify these symptoms for early prevention and treatment.

Prevention and Treatment

During an asthma attack, follow through your asthma plan instructed by your doctor. This generally includes:

  1. Take one to two puffs of your reliever inhaler immediately.
  2. Sit down and try to take slow, steady, deep breaths.
  3. Take two puffs of your reliever inhaler (one puff at a time) every two minutes over a 10-minute period
  4. If symptoms persist or severe symptoms escalate, immediately call and go to the emergency room.

Emergency treatment can include:

  • Short-acting beta agonists. These medications, such as albuterol, are the same medications as those in your quick-acting (rescue) inhaler.
  • Oral corticosteroids. These medications, taken in pill form, help reduce lung inflammation and get your asthma symptoms under control. For more-severe asthma attacks, corticosteroids can be given intravenously.
  • Ipratropium (Atrovent). This medication is used to treat a severe asthma attack, especially if albuterol is not fully effective.
  • Intubation, mechanical ventilation and oxygen. This is specifically used for life-threatening asthma attacks. A breathing tube is placed down your throats into your upper airway to pump oxygen into your lungs.

Next Steps

After your asthma attack, make sure to follow up and take precautions. Make an appointment with your doctor within two business days of your discharge. Consult your doctor for a written asthma action plan and follow up with a hospital specialist at one month to check your treatment plan. Understand how to avoid future attacks, and proactively reduce your risks.

Schedule a Consultation

An asthma attack can be daunting. Recognizing and understanding the early signs of asthma and treatment can save a life. If you have asthma, consult your doctor to discuss treatment options and an asthma care plan. The asthma care plan is your guide to determining how well your asthma is controlled and what actions need to be taken when asthma symptoms escalate. With your input, your doctor will develop your personalized asthma care plan.

If you live in the New York area, be sure to schedule an appointment with asthma specialist Dr. Shukla to formulate a plan and better manage your asthma.

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