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What’s An Asthma Attack Feel Like

What Does An Asthma Attack Feel Like And What Happens During An Attack

An asthma attack is also referred to as an acute exacerbation of asthma and is a sudden and rapid flare-up in asthma symptoms.  During an acute exacerbation, there is a constriction and spasm of the muscles in the walls of the bronchial tubes which results in the narrowing of the bronchial tube which impedes the air flow to the lungs.  In addition, there is inflammation of the lining of the bronchial tubes and an increase in the mucus secretion into the tubes.

The symptoms of an acute exacerbation of asthma may include a feeling of tightness or heaviness in the chest, wheezing, coughing, and/or difficulty in breathing.  Some asthmatic individuals describe the feeling as if they are forced to breathe through a narrow straw.  These episodes are usually also accompanied with considerable anxiety and apprehension.

Breathing may become shallow and rapid in severe cases.  The increased work of breathing may be associated with sweating.  The spaces between the collar bones, between the ribs, and below the chest bone may become sunken or retracted.  In extreme cases, the lips, fingers, and/or toes may turn blue due to an inadequate oxygen supply.

In some cases, there are identifiable triggers for asthma attacks such as an exposure to a known allergen , irritants , and/or infections .  In these cases, avoidance of exposure to the known triggers is critical in helping to prevent acute asthma exacerbations.

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What Should I Do If I Have A Severe Asthma Attack

A severe asthma attack needs immediate medical care. The first step is your rescue inhaler. A rescue inhaler uses fast-acting medicines to open up your airways. Its different than your normal maintenance inhaler, which you use every day. You should only use the rescue inhaler in an emergency.

If your rescue inhaler doesnt help or you dont have it with you, go to the emergency department if you have:

  • Anxiety or panic.
  • Bluish fingernails, bluish lips or gray or whitish lips or gums .
  • Chest pain or pressure.

Who Does Asthma Affect

It can impact anyone at any age. Asthma may suddenly occur in your adulthood or begin in childhood, and its cause remains unknown. The condition is the leading cause behind childhood hospital admissions. Although it impacts more boys in primary school, its more likely to affect females in their teenage years.

Studies have shown that pregnant mothers who smoke are more likely to have children who develop asthma. Adults and children residing in areas with high levels of chemical exposure and air pollution are more susceptible to experiencing adverse asthma attacks or symptoms. The condition is more likely to impact people from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

Here are the most common types of asthma:

Causes Of An Asthma Attack

An asthma attack happens when your bronchial tubes, or air passages, become inflamed or blocked. The muscles around these tubes constrict and narrow, making it hard to breathe. 

The common causes of an asthma attack are:

  • Allergen triggers, such as mold, pets or dust mites
  • Air irritants, like smoke, perfume, or chemical smells
  • Illnesses like the flu or a respiratory infection
  • Vigorous exercise

There are other medical issues that can be confused for an asthma attack for example, it can be very difficult to distinguish an asthma attack from an allergic reaction, Madsen says.

In some cases, if you have asthma, having an allergic reaction can actually trigger an asthma attack, Madsen says. This can happen if you breathe in an allergen in the air like pollen or dust.

People who suffer from anxiety attacks may also experience shortness of breath and tightness in their chests, but there are differences in symptoms. Wheezing is a telltale sign of an asthma attack that may not show up in other conditions, Madsen says.

What Are Common Asthma Attack Triggers

Living with Asthma

An asthma attack happens when someone comes in contact with substances that irritate them. Healthcare providers call these substances triggers. Knowing what triggers your asthma makes it easier to avoid asthma attacks.

For some people, a trigger can bring on an attack right away. Sometimes, an attack may start hours or days later.

Triggers can be different for each person. But some common triggers include:

  • Air pollution: Many things outside can cause an asthma attack. Air pollution includes factory emissions, car exhaust, wildfire smoke and more.
  • Dust mites: You cant see these bugs, but they are in many homes. If you have a dust mite allergy, they can cause an asthma attack.
  • Exercise: For some people, exercising can cause an attack.
  • Mold: Damp places can spawn mold. It can cause problems for people with asthma. You dont even have to be allergic to mold to have an attack.
  • Pests: Cockroaches, mice and other household pests can cause asthma attacks.
  • Pets: Your pets can cause asthma attacks. If youre allergic to pet dander , breathing in the dander can irritate your airways.
  • Tobacco smoke: If you or someone in your home smokes, you have a higher risk of developing asthma. The best solution is to quit smoking.
  • Strong chemicals or smells.

With asthma, you may not have all of these symptoms. You may have different signs at different times. And symptoms can change between asthma attacks.

What To Do After An Asthma Attack

An asthma attack can be a learning experience if you and your doctor use it to refine your asthma action plan. Get some tips on what to do after an asthma attack.

An asthma attack is a sudden worsening of asthma symptoms that causes your air passages to become smaller and makes your breathing more difficult. Symptoms of an asthma attack may include difficult and painful breathing, coughing, and . Anyone with asthma needs to have a plan for what to do during an asthma attack. But you should also know what to do after an asthma attack.

You cant always avoid an asthma attack, but you can check in with your doctor and use an asthma attack as a way to improve your asthma management, said Jonathan Bernstein, MD, an associate professor in allergy and asthma at the University of Cincinnati Academic Health Center. In some cases, an asthma attack may be an indication that you need to make some changes.

Seeing your doctor after an asthma attack is especially important if you are newly diagnosed. Discussing the attack with your doctor can help you learn more about your asthma and empower you to manage your asthma better in the future, said Sumita Khatri, MD, co-director of the asthma center at the Cleveland Clinic.

After An Asthma Attack

You should see a GP or asthma nurse within 48 hours of leaving hospital, or ideally on the same day if you did not need hospital treatment.

About 1 in 6 people treated in hospital for an asthma attack need hospital care again within 2 weeks, so it’s important to discuss how you can reduce your risk of future attacks.

Talk to a doctor or nurse about any changes that may need to be made to manage your condition safely.

For example, the dose of your treatment may need to be adjusted or you may need to be shown how to use your inhaler correctly.

When Is It Serious

To help you know when you need medical attention, use a peak flow meter every day so you know how much air typically flows out of your lungs. People with asthma have a lower air flow in and out of their lungs. By tracking your peak flow levels regularly, you can spot problems early before you experience annoying or dangerous symptoms. A meter will also tell you and your doctor how serious your asthma attacks are. That way youll know when to take medicine or seek emergency care. And peak flow readings can also help you pinpoint your asthma triggers.

Some signs that your asthma is worse:

If you need medical assistance, contact CareFinders at 1-866-608-FIND to make an appointment with a physician, or call 911 immediately if it is an emergency.

It’s Easy To Get The Care You Need

See a Premier Physician Network provider near you.

It might feel like taking deep breaths of very cold air on a winter day. Your breathing becomes harder and may hurt. You may cough and wheeze. Is this an asthma attack?

If you have asthma, you already know that it makes the airways of your lungs swell and narrow. The wheezing that sometimes you can hear, sometimes only a physician can hear, is when air is trying to squeeze through those little airways, explains Anessa Alappatt, MD, Fairborn Medical Center. While no one knows for sure what causes asthma, its most likely a combination of inherited and environmental factors.

How Do You Monitor Asthma Symptoms

Monitoring your asthma symptoms is an essential piece of managing the disease. Your healthcare provider may have you use a peak flow meter. This device measures how fast you can blow air out of your lungs. It can help your provider make adjustments to your medication. It also tells you if your symptoms are getting worse.

Common Asthma Attack Triggers

An asthma trigger is an irritant that causes the airways to become inflamed and constrict. Constriction of airways marks the start of an asthma attack and can cause other symptoms like wheezing. 

There isnt one single trigger of asthma. What triggers an asthma attack for one person might not be the same for another. Youll know what causes an asthma attack for you if youre exposed to an irritant and have shortness of breath or start wheezing. The most common triggers are:     

  • Allergies
  • Medications such as beta-blockers
  • Easier Said Than Done Right

    I am finally at an age where I shouldnt have to do these tasks anymore. I have kids that are old enough they can help out some. I also have access to more money now, so some of these jobs can simply be hired out. For instance, I can hire a service to manage my yard. And Im sure theres a kid who will shovel snow. So, those tasks will be pretty easy to .

    Other tasks might not be so easy to avoid. For instance, who am I going to get to through all those boxes of stuff. Most of that stuff is probably junk and can just be tossed out. But, amid that junk might be a treasure. Still, is the reward here worth the risk? Probably not.

    When To Call For Emergency Assistance

    Chronic and Persistent Asthma

    Your coughing and wheezing are severe. You may have to bend slightly forward while sitting in order to get air. Your ribs and chest heave in and out with every breath. Speaking may be limited to phrases, or you may not be able to speak. Your lips and nailbeds are blue or grey. You may feel very frightened.

    If you have a nebulizer for your emergency breathing treatment administration, use it continuously until help arrives. If you use an emergency inhaler, immediately take six puffs of the medication. Take 40 milligrams of prednisone.

    What Types Of Asthma Are There

    Healthcare providers identify asthma as intermittent or persistent . Persistent asthma can be mild, moderate or severe. Healthcare providers base asthma severity on how often you have attacks. They also consider how well you can do things during an attack.

    Asthma can be:

    • Allergic: Some peoples can cause an asthma attack. Molds, pollens and other allergens can cause an attack.
    • Non-allergic: Outside factors can cause asthma to flare up. Exercise, stress, illness and weather may cause a flare.

    Can Asthma Be Cured

    There is currently no known cure for asthma, but with proper diagnosis and asthma management it is fully possible for people with asthma to live healthy, active and symptom-free lives.

    There is still much research that needs to be done to fully understand how to prevent, treat and cure asthma. Asthma Canadas National Research Program is committed to supporting leading asthma researchers and graduate student researchers working to expand our knowledge and one day, unlock a cure. 

    Being Prepared For An Asthma Emergency

    An asthma attack can range from mild to severe. A severe attack, also called an exacerbation, can be a medical emergency. Having an asthma action plan is the key to recognizing and managing an asthma emergency.

    Work with your doctor to come up with an asthma action plan. This plan shows when you are in the green zone , yellow zone or red zone . Your plan will also list instructions for what to do in each situation.

    It Can Feel Like I’m Breathing Through A Squished Straw

    Kate G. was diagnosed with asthma after an outdoor excursion. I started wheezing partway up the mountain while hiking during a school field trip, Kate, whose main triggers include physical exertion, smoke, mold, mildew, dust, cold air, and pet dander, tells SELF.

    During an asthma attack, she says, it feels like someone or something is sitting on my chest and constricting my lungs so I can only breathe in partway. It can feel like I’m breathing through a squished straw. Sometimes she experiences feelings of panic, lightheadedness, and chest pain.

    To get relief, Kate uses a fast-acting inhaler with medication to quickly open her constricted airways. If I’m not near my inhaler, which is rare, I go outside and try to breathe deeply and slowly, she says. Lying down also helps.

    Symptoms After An Asthma Attack

    How you feel after an asthma attack will depend on how severe the attack was and what triggered it.

    If the attack was triggered by an irritant, such as cold weather, pollutants or allergens such as pollen, animal fur or dust, you should recover relatively quickly.

    If your asthma attack was caused by an infection, such an upper airway infection, then it might take longer for you to recover. You may have symptoms such as fatigue and exhaustion after your asthma attack.

    Do follow any recovery guidance given to you by a doctor or medical professional. Rest, drink plenty of fluids, take your medication and attend any necessary follow-up appointments.

    If you havent seen your doctor or asthma nurse for a routine appointment recently, book one as soon as possible.

    Emotional Effects Of Asthma

    Asthma can lead to several different emotions. There is no right or wrong way to feel about having asthma. The emotional impact may depend on several factors, such as the severity of symptoms, level of support, and how much asthma interferes with everyday activities.

    Some common emotions people with asthma may have include:

    • Anxiety. An asthma attack can be frightening. In some cases, a past attack may have led to a hospitalization, which can increase fears. Not knowing what can trigger an attack may also lead to anxiety.
    • Anger. Some people may be angry that they have to deal with a chronic illness. Their anger may be misdirected at anyone, such as a family member or medical professional. Anger may come from feeling sick, limiting activities, or not knowing how to control flare-ups.
    • Guilt. Some people may feel guilty about having asthma attacks. They may feel their symptoms are interfering with other peoples lives. In some instances, frequent attacks may cause increased medical visits and medications, which can become costly.
    • Confusion. Not everyone understands what triggers their asthma. Random asthma attacks that do not appear to have a specific trigger may cause confusion on how to stop flare-ups.

    Although asthma and eczema are different diseases, they do have one thing in common: both are intimately connected to allergies.

    Am I Having An Asthma Attack

    Last reviewed: Medically reviewed

    All of Healthily’s articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our safety page, or read our editorial policy.

    An asthma attack has been described as feeling like a huge weight is on your chest, with that weight being so heavy that you struggle to draw breath.

    The attack happens when the symptoms of asthma – a condition that inflames the airways to the lungs – get worse, leading to problems breathing.

    Asthma is common, affecting more than 339 million people globally, according to the World Health Organization, and around half of those may experience at least 1 attack in a year. In the UK, an asthma attack occurs every 10 seconds.

    Though attacks may be quite common among people with asthma, knowing how to recognise the signs of an attack and understanding why they happen can help you to manage them better and even prevent one.

    What To Do If You Think Youre Having An Asthma Attack

    Asthma UK

    If you suspect youre having an attack, follow these steps:

  • Stay calm. Panicking or breathing rapidly can make things worse, so do your best to inhale and exhale evenly. Do not lie downtry to stand or sit upright to keep your airways open.
  • Use your rescue inhaler. Remove the cap and shake the inhaler. Seal your mouth around the inhaler, breathe in 1 puff, and hold your breath for 10 seconds. Repeat this up to 3 more times, waiting 1 minute in between puffs.
  • Its safe to use an albuterol rescue inhaler even if the expiration date has passed. However, the medication inside may not be as effective, so you may need to use more of it to find relief. Dont use an inhaler thats been damaged or stored in direct sunlight.

    If you dont have a rescue inhaler, call 911 immediately. In the meantime, try to remain calm and move away from nearby respiratory irritants, like cigarette smoke, pets, or outdoor pollen.

    Even if you manage to get an asthma attack under control on your own, you should still visit your family doctor within the next few days. Your doctor can determine if you require additional medications, clinical testing, or if theres an underlying condition that led to the attack.

    When It Gets Worse

    Signs of worsening asthma include:

    • Feeling panicky
    • Wheezing when you breathe both in and out
    • Inability to stop coughing
    • Having trouble talking or walking
    • Getting a tight neck and chest muscles
    • Having a pale, sweaty face

    Follow the “Red Zone” or emergency instructions in your asthma action plan. Call 911 or get to the hospital. You need medical attention right away.

    After An Asthma Attack: Changing Your Asthma Management Or Asthma Attack Treatment

    “After an asthma attack evaluation, your doctor may want to step up treatment, step down treatment, change treatment, or increase your doctor visits,” said Bernstein.

    Some signs that your treatment plan may need to change include:

    • Frequent asthma attacks
    • Needing to take more asthma medication than prescribed
    • Waking up at night with asthma symptoms
    • Daytime activity limited by asthma
    • Continued cough, congestion, and mucous production
    • Poor peak flow rates

    Knowing what to do after an asthma attack is part of learning how to manage your asthma. Each asthma attack is a chance to learn more about your asthma triggers and your asthma medications. Sharing this information with your doctor gives you and your doctor the opportunity to make the right adjustments to your asthma action plan â and that could mean fewer asthma attacks in your future.

    Asthma Attack = Heavy Chest

    The main sensation I feel when as asthma attack begins to occur is a feeling of weight on the chest. Each breath takes extra effort.

    And each breath feels like its not enough, because each breath is not getting enough oxygen to the blood stream. This is true even when I take what feels like a deep breath its just never deep enough. 

    For me, asthma attacks almost feel like when youve stuffed yourself on a big meal, and you feel overfull and have acid reflux

    So if you dont have asthma, imagine youve just eaten the biggest, most acidic meal of your life. Youve never felt so full. And youre sitting on your couch breathing heavy. Youve got a general sense of discomfort and burning in your upper chest area and throat.

    And no matter which way you adjust your body, whether you sit up or sit down or move around or lie down the awful feelings persist.

    Thats what an asthma attack feels like. Except with indigestion, you just have to wait for the food to digest. For asthmatics, its not so easy.

    With uncontrolled asthma, an asthma attack will likely get worse and worse until its treated with medicine.

    I talk about how its important for asthmatics to try to use their rescue inhaler less during tough moments, but a true asthma attack will need intervention.

    This is why its crucial for people with asthma to always keep their rescue inhaler close by.

    Even if you manage your asthma well like I do , you never know when you might need it. 

    How Is Asthma Diagnosed

    To diagnose asthma, a healthcare provider will review your family history, medical history, and symptoms before conducting a physical exam. During the checkup, theyll focus on your lungs and heart. They may also order a chest x-ray, blood, allergy, and breathing tests. The results will tell the provider whether or not you have asthma and identify underlying conditions that may be contributing to your symptoms.

    Food And Food Additives Trigger Asthma

    Food allergies can cause mild to severe life-threatening reactions. They rarely cause asthma without other symptoms. If you have food allergies, asthma can be part of a severe, life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis. The most common foods associated with allergic symptoms are:

    • Eggs
    • Salads
    • Fresh fruits

    Food preservatives can trigger isolated asthma, especially sulfite additives, like sodium bisulfite, potassium bisulfite, sodium metabisulfite, potassium metabisulfite, and sodium sulfite, which are commonly used in food processing or preparation.

    What To Do If You Have Covid

    If you have any of these symptoms or if you have been exposed to someone who has COVID-19, contact your doctor right away and avoid contact with others unless absolutely necessary. Call before you go to your doctors office and ask for instructions. Your doctor may have a special process for you to follow so you dont risk spreading it to other patients and staff. They may have you get tested for COVID-19 and will give you further instruction.

    If you have these severe symptoms, call 911 or go to the emergency room right away:

    • Trouble breathing or shortness of breath
    • Pain or pressure in the chest that doesnt go away
    • Newly confused or cant wake up
    • Bluish tint on lips, face or fingernails

    If you have to leave home for treatment, wear a face mask to prevent spreading the virus. Isolate yourself from people you live with and wear a face mask around them even at home. Clean and sanitize surfaces that are touched often like doorknobs, light switches and cell phones.

    What To Do When Having An Asthma Attack

    If you have asthma, then its important that you know what to do and not do if you have an asthma attack.

  • Sit upright in a comfortable position and loosen any tight clothing. Leaning forward slightly or sitting backwards on a chair may help your breathing.
  • Breathe slowly and deeply.
  • If you dont have your inhaler with you, call an ambulance. Dial 999 in the UK, 911 in the US or 112 in the Europe Union.
  • If you do have your reliever inhaler , take one puff every 30-60 seconds up to a maximum of 10 puffs. If you have a spacer device to hand, use that to administer the inhaler, as it can help the medicine get into your airways more efficiently.
  • If youre using your inhaler and feel worse or you dont feel any better after youve had 10 puffs, call the emergency services.
  • If youre waiting for an ambulance and it hasnt arrived within 15 minutes, use your reliever inhaler again and take one puff every 30 to 60 seconds, up to a maximum of 10 puffs.
  • Stay as calm as you can, as panic and anxiety can make your symptoms worse.
  • Its hard to predict exactly when an asthma attack will occur, so its also important to discuss your condition with your family, friends and employer. Its essential that they all become better acquainted with what happens and how to react and help if you have an asthma attack.


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