During an asthma attack, also called an asthma exacerbation, your airways become swollen and inflamed. The muscles around the airways contract, causing your breathing (bronchial) tubes to narrow. During an asthma attack, you may cough, wheeze and have trouble breathing. An asthma attack may be minor, with symptoms that get better with prompt home treatment, or it may be more serious. A severe asthma attack that doesn't improve with home treatment can become a life-threatening emergency.
The key to stopping an asthma attack is recognizing and treating an asthma flare-up early. Follow the treatment plan you worked out with your doctor ahead of time. This plan should include what to do when your asthma starts getting worse, and how to deal with an asthma attack in progress.
Asthma attack symptoms include:
- Severe shortness of breath, chest tightness or pain, and coughing or wheezing
- Low peak expiratory flow (PEF) readings, if you use a peak flow meter
- Worsening symptoms despite use of a quick-relief (rescue) inhaler
Signs and symptoms of an asthma attack vary from person to person. Work with your doctor to identify your particular signs and symptoms of worsening asthma — and what to do when they occur. If your asthma symptoms keep getting worse even after you take medication as your doctor directed, you may need a trip to the emergency room. Your doctor can help you learn to recognize an asthma emergency so that you'll know when to get help.
When to see the doctor
If your asthma flares up, immediately follow the treatment steps you and your doctor worked out ahead of time in your written asthma plan. If your symptoms and peak expiratory flow (PEF) readings improve, home treatment may be all that's needed. If your symptoms don't improve with home treatment, you may need to seek emergency care.
When your asthma symptoms flare up, follow your written asthma plan's instructions for using your quick-acting (rescue) inhaler. If you use a peak flow meter to monitor your asthma, PEF readings ranging from 50 to 79 percent of your personal best are a sign you need to use quick-acting (rescue) medications prescribed by your doctor.
Check asthma control steps with your doctor
Asthma can change over time, so you'll need periodic adjustments to your treatment plan to keep daily symptoms under control. If your asthma isn't well controlled, it increases your risk of future asthma attacks. Lingering lung inflammation means your asthma could flare up at any time.
Go to all scheduled doctor's appointments. If you have regular asthma flare-ups, low peak flow readings or other signs your asthma isn't well controlled, make an appointment to see your doctor.
When to seek emergency medical treatment
Seek medical attention right away if you have signs of a serious asthma attack, which include:
- Severe breathlessness or wheezing, especially at night or in the early morning
- Inability to speak more than short phrases due to shortness of breath
- Straining chest muscles to breathe
- Low peak flow readings when you use a peak flow meter
An overly sensitive immune system makes your airways (bronchial tubes) become inflamed and swollen when you're exposed to certain triggers. Asthma triggers vary from person to person. Common asthma attack triggers include:
- Pollen, pets, mold and dust mites
- Upper respiratory infections
- Tobacco smoke
- Inhaling cold, dry air
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
For many people, asthma symptoms get worse with a respiratory infection such as a cold. Some people have asthma flare-ups caused by something in their work environment. Sometimes, asthma attacks occur with no apparent cause.