Asthma Attack

By Zina Semenovskaya, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
October 8, 2021

If you have asthma, you’re a member of a big club: More than 25 million people in the U.S.suffer from this condition.

And chances are, you’ve experienced an asthma attack—so you know that the asthma club is not a fun one. 

An asthma attack is an exacerbation of asthma symptoms like shortness of breath, chest tightness, and coughing.

During an attack, these symptoms become so severe that breathing is so difficult that it can feel like you’re drowning.

These attacks can be painful, scary, and even life-threatening if not treated properly. 

Luckily, there has been lots of research on asthma and asthma attacks, so there are plenty of ways to keep yourself healthy and happy despite living with this incurable condition.

In this article, I’ll arm you with the tools and knowledge you need to do so, explaining what an asthma attack is, what it feels like, what causes it, and how it can be treated and prevented.

I’ll also talk about potential complications and risks, and when you should see a doctor.

What is an Asthma Attack?

An asthma attack occurs when the muscles around the bronchial tubes (the airways leading in and out of the lungs) begin to constrict, narrowing the passageways and making it difficult to breathe.

In addition to narrowing, the airways often become inflamed and irritated during an asthma attack, and can also fill with excess mucus. 

An asthma attack may last from minutes to days, depending on its severity, and may resolve spontaneously or require hospitalization.

Because asthma attacks are different between people, it’s important to learn how they impact you, and work with your doctor to create an asthma action plan—a paper or online guide to keeping your asthma in check so you can handle asthma attacks as they come, and try to prevent them before they do. 

An asthma action plan typically includes directions from your doctor on what to do in an emergency, how to tell if your symptoms are getting worse, what medications to take and when, how to control your triggers, and more.

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Asthma Attack Symptoms & Warning Signs

Signs and symptoms of asthma attacks vary between people, but there are several key experiences that many attacks share:

A mild asthma attack will typically go away on its own through home treatment (including fast-acting medication), but a severe asthma attack may need emergency treatment, such as a visit to the emergency room. 

There are also several symptoms that can indicate that an asthma attack may be imminent.

These warning signs include:

  • Feeling tired
  • Being anxious or restless
  • Losing your breath more easily than normal
  • Dark bags under the eyes
  • Being short-tempered, cranky, or irritable
  • Insomnia

When to go to the ER 

Asthma attacks can be deadly—in fact, according to the CDC, approximately 3,524 Americans die from attacks each year. So it is critical to get medical attention when required.

Pay attention to your symptoms and how they are progressing, and don’t be afraid to call 9-1-1. This is especially true if your emergency medication is not seeming to help.

Warning signs that you need to go to the emergency room for your asthma attack include:

  • Extreme shortness of breath
  • Rapid breathing
  • Being unable to take a full breath in or out
  • Feeling confused or frustrated
  • Being unable to speak and/or walk
  • A blue tint on the lips, fingernails, or face

If you are able to, bring any asthma medication and your asthma action plan with you to the emergency room. It can be helpful for the doctor. 

Asthma Attack Causes

The causes of asthma differ between people, but one thing remains the same between all of them: Something is causing the airways in the lungs to narrow.

When the airways narrow far enough, an asthma attack will take place. 

There are a variety of different things that may cause this narrowing to happen, and these are referred to as “asthma triggers.”

Asthma attack triggers

Asthma attacks happen when a person with asthma comes in contact with one of their asthma triggers.

Different people have different triggers, and some sufferers may have more than one trigger.

It’s important for asthma sufferers to be able to identify their triggers in order to avoid them, or prepare for them when they can’t. 

There are a variety of different things that can trigger an asthma attack, including allergens (if you have allergic asthma), physical activity (if you have exercise-induced asthma), environmental conditions, and more. 

Triggers in adults

Of the more than 25 million people in the U.S. that have asthma, 60% suffer from allergic asthma, a form of asthma triggered by being exposed to allergens.

People with allergic asthma suffer from asthma symptoms and attacks when their body reacts to these allergens, because their immune system thinks they are harmful (even though they’re not). 

Common allergens that trigger asthma attacks include:

  • Pet dander
  • Smoke from tobacco, wood, or grass
  • Dust mites
  • Cockroaches
  • Pollen (from trees, grasses, weeds)
  • Mold
  • Food items like milk, fish, eggs, and nuts

Beyond allergens, asthma attacks can be triggered by a number of environmental factors and physical conditions that cause the airways to narrow:

  • Strong emotions, leading to hyperventilation
  • Respiratory infections (like sinus infections, colds, the flu)
  • Chemical fumes and air pollution
  • Strong smells (such as perfumes or other scented products)
  • Exercise
  • Exposure to cold or dry air
  • Acid reflux

Triggers in children

Approximately one in 12 children in the U.S. suffers from asthma, making it the most common chronic disease in children.

Most times, children develop asthma before the age of five—before they may be able to fully understand the condition, or how to help themselves.

So it’s important for parents and guardians to learn their child’s triggers, keep them away from them as best as possible, and follow an asthma action plan to keep them safe.

Triggers vary between children, and they are susceptible to all of the same ones as adults (as listed above). However, some are more common in kids:

  • Overexertion while running or playing
  • Inhaling smoke
  • Allergens 
  • Changes in weather
  • Strong scents
  • Strong emotions (like intense crying or laughing)

Asthma Attack Treatment Options

If you have asthma, it’s important to check in with your doctor regularly so you can keep your asthma action plan up to date.

As part of your asthma action plan, your doctor will typically prescribe you both long-term and short-term medications, typically in the form of an inhaler.

An inhaler (often called a bronchodilator) is a device that delivers medicine straight into your lungs through inhalation. Inhalers are often accompanied by a piece called a spacer, which attaches to the inhaler, and gives a person more time to inhale the medication, making the delivery more effective.

Spacers are especially helpful for children, or those new to taking inhaled medications.

Fast-acting inhalers

A fast-acting inhaler—often referred to as a rescue inhaler or quick-relief inhaler—is a short-term asthma medication that works to ease symptoms immediately after it is taken.

It does so by helping to relax the muscles around your airways, opening them back up so it’s easier to breathe. 

The most common type of fast-acting medication is a short-acting beta-agonist, which includes medications like albuterol, epinephrine, and levalbuterol.

Other short-term medications include anticholinergics (which help lessen mucus in the airways) and oral corticosteroids (which reduce swelling in the airways).

Long-term medications

Long-term medications are often prescribed alongside fast-acting inhalers as a means of preventing asthma symptoms before they begin.

These include corticosteroids, leukotriene modifiers, immunomodulators, and long-acting beta-agonists.

Advice for friends and family

If someone you love suffers from asthma attacks, have a copy of their asthma action plan handy for an emergency situation.

This can help you know what medication to give them, how to tell if their symptoms are getting worse, and who to contact to get them help. 

It’s also helpful to know the warning signs that someone may need to go to the emergency room amid an asthma attack.

If you have a loved one who suffers from asthma attacks often, asthma attack first aid training can be incredibly beneficial.

This training can give you tips to help them stay comfortable until emergency help arrives. 

Above all, one of the best tips for dealing with someone having an asthma attack is to stay calm, and try to keep them as calm as possible. 

Asthma Attack Prevention

There’s no cure for asthma, but you can take steps to avoid attacks.

The key step in preventing asthma attacks is avoiding triggers.

Work with your doctor to determine your triggers, then how to minimize exposure to them.

This will be different depending on the patient, as there are so many different types of asthma and triggers. 

Following your asthma action plan is also the best way to prevent an asthma attack.

Take your long- and short-term medications as prescribed, learn to identify your symptoms, and seek emergency treatment promptly when necessary. 

Asthma Attack Risk Factors & Complications

While researchers have not pinpointed what exactly causes asthma, there are a variety of genetic and environmental factors that may put someone more at risk for developing it.

These include:

  • Having an immediate family member who suffers from asthma
  • Smoking, or being exposed to secondhand smoke
  • Being overweight
  • Being exposed to fumes, chemicals, or other irritants/types of pollution
  • Having an allergic disorder (such as eczema or hay fever)

If not properly treated, people with asthma attacks may also suffer from related complications.

These can include:

  • A permanent narrowing of the bronchial tubes, which may make breathing chronically difficult 
  • Interference with school, work, or other everyday activities
  • Lack of proper sleep, which can lead to other health problems
  • Long-term hospitalization for severe attacks
  • Side effects from long-term use of fast-acting medication 

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When to See a Doctor

Like with most other health conditions, if your asthma/asthma attacks are interfering with your everyday life and activities, see a doctor.

One positive about asthma is that it’s been extensively researched, so despite not being curable, it’s easily treatable.

Treatment can greatly improve your quality of life, so you should visit your doctor to create an asthma action plan tailored to your needs. 

If you’ve seen a doctor in the past but aren’t finding your symptoms to have improved (or find that they’re getting worse over time), don’t be afraid to go back to a doctor to reevaluate your condition.

They’ll likely change your action plan so you can be breathing easy again. 

How K Health Can Help

If you suffer from asthma attacks and want to either begin or check over your asthma action plan, K Health can help.

Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app?

Download K Health to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and, if needed, text with a clinician in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

What does an asthma attack sound like?
Asthma attacks can sound different for different people, but are often accompanied by sounds of coughing, gasping for air, rattling in the chest, and wheezing. If you are having a severe asthma attack and begin to go silent, this is a dangerous sign, and you should seek emergency medical care immediately.
What happens after an asthma attack?
How quickly you recover from an asthma attack depends on what triggered it, and how severe it was. For example, if the attack was caused by an allergen or irritant, you will likely recover quickly, though you may feel tired immediately after. If it was triggered by a respiratory infection, it will likely take longer—until you’re fully healed. If you’ve been recently diagnosed with asthma, it’s important to discuss an asthma attack with your doctor afterwards, in order to use it as a learning experience. And if the attack was severe (especially if you needed emergency treatment), you should speak to your doctor afterwards as well, even if you’ve had asthma for years, to determine if there’s anything that should be changed in your asthma action plan to prevent another severe attack.
Can asthma attacks lead to other issues like heart attack or cardiac arrest?
Research has shown that having active asthma doubles your chance of having a cardiovascular event, like a heart attack or cardiac arrest. And while taking asthma medication can save your life, it can also increase the risk of having a cardiovascular event by 60% after 10 years of continuous use.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Zina Semenovskaya, MD

Dr. Semenovskaya specializes in emergency medicine, and received her medical degree from Weill Cornell Medical College. She is currently the medical director at Remote Emergency Medicine Consulting, LLC and splits her time working clinically as an emergency medicine attending in California and Alaska. She is the first of our doctors to be fluent in Russian.

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