What is Asthma?

Asthma is a lung disease that is a long-term condition. Asthma sufferers have airways that get inflamed and narrowed, which makes breathing a change. Classic symptoms include shortness of breath, chest tightness, wheezing and coughing. If your asthma is severe, it will be difficult to be active and to talk.

What do we mean by the term ‘asthma attack’?

When you have an asthma attack, your symptoms are suddenly worse. This is caused by your muscles that surround your airways becoming tighter (bronchospasm). During an asthma attack, the airway lining becomes inflamed, swollen and the mucus becomes thicker than usual. This causes difficulty in breathing and worsening asthma symptoms. Other symptoms of an asthma attack include:

  • Rapid breathing
  • Wheezing that is severe
  • A cough that won’t stop
  • Tightened muscles (retractions) in the chest and neck
  • Difficulty taking
  • Feeling panicky or having feelings of anxiety
  • A face that is sweaty and pale
  • Blue fingernails or lips

Some asthmatics can go for a long time without having an attack or without their symptoms becoming worse.

Asthma attacks that are mild are fairly common. Normally, your airways open up again after a few minutes or hours.

Asthma attacks that are severe are not as common but these last for a long time and require medical attention. This is why it is important to treat symptoms of an asthma attack as it helps to keep severe episodes at bay.

What happens if you don’t treat an asthma attack?

If you don’t treat asthma soon, breathing will become much more laboured and wheezing will increase in volume. It is possible that your lungs become so tight during an asthma attack that there won’t be enough air to produce a wheeze. This is a really dangerous sign. It is often called “the silent chest” and you need to get to the hospital without delay. Some people misinterpret this wheeze disappearance as a positive sign and then fail to get crucial help.

If you don’t get help while having an asthma attack, you will probably be unable to speak. You might also develop a blue tint around your lips. This is called cyanosis and it means your blood oxygen levels are lower. If you don’t get help and aggressive treatment at the hospital, it is possible for you to lose consciousness and die.

What are the early warning signs that an asthma attack is about to happen?

Asthma attack early warning signs happen at the very beginning or just before an asthma attack happens. Generally, these warning signs are not so severe that you are stopped from doing your day-to-day activities. But, if you recognise the early signs, you can prevent a worsening asthma attack or stop one from occurring. Some early warning signs are:

  • A cough that is frequent, particularly at night
  • Reduced peak flow reading
  • Shortness of breath or getting out of breath quickly
  • Coughing or wheezing after exercise or while exercising (exercise-induced asthma)
  • Feeling in a bad mood, grouchy, upset easily or tired
  • Symptoms of allergies or a cold (sneezing, cough, runny nose, nasal congestions, headache, sore throat)
  • Nighttime asthma or difficulties sleeping

Since the severity of asthma attacks can change quite quickly, it is vital that you recognise early warning signs and treat them.

What do I do if I have an asthma attack?

If you or someone you know is having an asthma attack and the symptoms aren’t improving with their usual treatments then you need to get to the hospital.

If you are with someone who is experiencing an asthma attack, you can help them.

Firstly, stay calm and reassure them. Being calm and reassuring helps them to not panic, which would make their attack worse. They need to take one or two puffs of their reliever inhaler. This is usually blue.

Get them to sit down and loosen any clothing that is tight. Encourage the person to try and take slow and steady breaths.

If they are still not seeing an improvement, they should take more puffs of their inhaler. If you are at all worried that things aren’t improving then call for an emergency ambulance.

You should encourage upright sitting. For example, sitting the wrong way around on a chair is a good position. Although it is tempting, do not take the person outside for fresh air. Cold air can make asthma symptoms worse.

After having an asthma attack

After an asthma attack, you should see your asthma nurse or GP within 48 if you have been in a hospital or the very same day if you didn’t go to the hospital.

Around 1 in every 6 people that go to the hospital with asthma attacks will end up back in the hospital within 2 weeks. Seeing a GP or asthma nurse will help you to review the management of your condition. For example, you might need a dosage review.