Am I Having an Asthma Attack?
What is Asthma?
Asthma is a life-long breathing problem that affects the airways in the lungs. It is caused by swelling and closing of the airways, making it hard to breathe or do any physical activity. Asthma often starts in childhood but can affect people of all ages. The CDC states that about 25 million people in the United States have asthma. It is also the most common chronic condition in children, with 1 in 12 kids being affected.
What types of asthma are there?
Asthma can fall into two categories: allergic or non-allergic asthma.
Allergic asthma is caused by allergens (substances that cause an allergic response). This is the most common type of asthma, and it is often seasonal because it goes hand-in-hand with seasonal allergies. Irritants might include:
- Pet dander from animals like cats and dogs
Non-allergic asthma is caused by irritants in the air not related to allergies. Irritants can include:
- Cigarette smoke
- Burning wood
- Cold air
- Air pollution
- Viral illnesses
- Cleaning products
- Strong scents, such as perfume
Asthma is also classified by how frequently it occurs.
- Intermittent: This type of asthma comes and goes, so you can feel normal in between asthma flares.
- Persistent: Persistent asthma means you have symptoms most of the time. Symptoms can be mild, moderate or severe. Your doctor will determine the severity of your asthma based on how often you have symptoms. They also consider how well you can do things during an attack.
Symptoms of asthma
The most common symptoms of asthma include:
- Wheezing (a whistling sound heard when you breathe in or out)
- Coughing, especially in the early morning or at night
- Chest pain or tightness
- Shortness of breath
If you are trying to determine if your young child has asthma, they may point to their chest and say, "I hurt" or "I feel funny here." However, babies can’t say anything at all. That's why it is essential to take your baby to the pediatrician for well-baby visits, where they can examine your baby and perform different tests to determine if they have asthma. If you think your child might have asthma, take them to the doctor.
What does an asthma attack feel like?
Any time you have asthma symptoms, it is an attack. Some attacks end quickly. Others are more serious. Severe asthma attacks can be very scary, and it might feel as if someone is sitting on your chest. Some people say it feels like the air has been sucked out of them. For many people, asthma symptoms will get progressively worse. Symptoms of a bad asthma attack include:
- Severe trouble breathing
- Gasping for air
- Trouble walking or talking
- Lips or fingernails turn blue or gray
- Fast heartbeat
- Even after taking medicine, these symptoms do not go away or get worse
If these things happen, it is an emergency. Take quick-relief medications, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department.
What causes an asthma attack?
There is no exact cause of asthma, and it can vary from person to person. It often starts in childhood when the immune system is still developing. Some factors that can cause asthma may include the following:
- Family history: If a parent or a sibling has been diagnosed with asthma, you are more likely to have it.
- Medical history of viral infections: If you have a history of severe viral infections during childhood, like RSV, you may be more likely to develop asthma.
- Environmental factors: Allergens, such as cigarette smoke or air pollution, can irritate the airways and can increase the risk of developing asthma. These can be especially harmful to infants and young children whose immune systems haven't finished developing.
- Obesity: Children or adults who are overweight have an increased risk of developing asthma. Although the reasons are unclear, extra weight can cause low-grade inflammation of the body.
What are the triggers of an asthma attack?
Some things make asthma symptoms worse. These are called triggers because they can cause symptoms. Common triggers are:
- Animal fur or dander (tiny skin flakes and saliva). All animals with fur, even short fur, have this.
- Pollen from leaves or weeds
- Cigarette smoke
- Household dust
A cold or the flu also can trigger asthma symptoms. Cold air and exercise can, too. While exercise and being active are good for your health, if you have asthma, you might need medicine before exercising. When you are near your triggers, symptoms can get worse. Staying away from or getting rid of the triggers will help. Your doctor can help you determine how to get rid of asthma triggers. Even when you feel good, it's essential to follow the directions from your doctor, especially when it comes to taking medicine. The medicine can help keep you healthy and keep your airways from getting tight.
Treatments for asthma
Your doctor will determine the best treatment options based on the severity of your symptoms and how frequently you get them. Treatments can include:
- Quick relief medication – These medications, often inhalers, give fast relief for tight, narrowed airways and the symptoms of coughing, wheezing and chest tightness that happens with asthma. Examples of quick-relief medications include Proventil HFA, ProAir HFA, Ventolin HFA, albuterol, Maxair and Xopenex.
- Long-term control medicine - Long-term control medications are taken daily to prevent symptoms and asthma attacks. They include inhaled corticosteroids such as fluticasone, budesonide, mometasone, beclomethasone and ciclesonide.
- Biologic therapies for asthma - Given by injection, these are used for severe asthma when symptoms persist despite proper inhaler therapy.
How to avoid an asthma attack
You can't always control when you get an asthma attack, but there are steps you can take to reduce your chances.
- Decrease the triggers in your home, like dust, smoking and cockroaches, that make your asthma worse.
- Reducing exposure to allergens. If you've identified allergens, such as dust or mold, that trigger an asthma attack, avoid them if possible.
- Work with the doctor to make sure you have the right medicine, and make sure you take the medicine and follow directions.
- Eat a healthier diet. The incidence of asthma has increased exponentially in the United States during the past few decades, and many researchers believe that our changing diets may be connected. As we eat fewer fruits and vegetables and more processed foods, it could be possible that we are also increasing our risk of developing asthma. While there's no conclusive evidence that specific foods affect the frequency or severity of asthma attacks, changing your diet can improve your overall health and may help reduce or control your asthma symptoms. Follow these eight tips for eating to manage asthma.
- If you have a child with asthma, make sure your school knows about your child's asthma. They should have a plan on file to help your child if they have an asthma attack. Your doctor will help you create this plan. If your child is old enough, they should carry their asthma medication with them if symptoms worsen.