Asthma is an inflammatory lung disease that makes breathing difficult. It is extremely common among kids and teenagers who may grow out of this condition before adulthood. Even so, adults can develop asthma after childhood, typically due to allergies.
When someone inhales, the air particles travel through a passageway known as the bronchial tubes. Inside the body of an asthmatic person, these bronchial tubes are prone to swelling, which can lead to blocked bronchial tubes and an interference with smooth airflow. In addition, sticky mucus begins to build up and blocks the airway even further. When airflow becomes blocked, you are left short of breath, wheezing, and coughing with a painful chest.
About Asthma Attacks
An asthma attack, also called an asthma flare-up, is a single incident or period of time during which airflow through your bronchial tubes worsens. A flare-up can occur in varying degrees of severity.
The least severe type of flare-up occurs when you feel short of breath while walking, but if you sit or lie down your breathing returns to normal.
A slightly more severe flare-up occurs when you feel short of breath while performing an easy task, such as talking or lying down. You might wheeze or cough, even though you are not moving much, and the only way to feel better is to sit quietly without speaking.
The most severe type of asthma flare-up occurs when you feel short of breath while sitting still without speaking; your heart rate picks up, and you might feel anxious and tense. Because of your obstructed airflow, you may lose enough oxygen that you begin feeling sleepy, which can be life-threatening. Seek medical help right away if you feel a severe flare-up like this.
Asthma flare-ups can last anywhere from a few minutes, such as during exercise or exposure to pet dander, to several weeks.
Asthma flare-ups are caused by three physical changes inside the airways:
• Excess production of a sticky mucus that blocks or narrows the airway
• A tightening, or retraction, of the muscular walls surrounding the airways, also called "bronchoconstriction"
• Swelling of the airways
Asthma attacks are serious, sometimes life-threatening conditions that demand immediate attention. Fortunately, there are steps someone can take to keep their asthma under control.
Though asthma cannot be cured, it can be managed with medication. The correct medication depends on a number of factors, including age, symptoms, and asthma triggers. Asthma medicines are classified into two categories: rescue medicines that stop symptoms of asthma and controller medicines that prevent the occurrence of asthma attacks in the first place.
The following symptoms are indications of an asthma attack:
Pain or tightness in the chest while inhaling or exhaling
A whistling or wheezing sound
Sweating and rapid heartbeats, even while sitting quietly
Inability to speak more than a few words at a time because of a need to pause and concentrate on breathing
A tightening of the muscular walls in the neck (bronchioconstriction) while inhaling
People suffering from asthma are often more sensitive to stimuli that do not bother people without asthma. These stimuli are called triggers. Encountering a trigger even briefly can cause an asthma attack.
Some common triggers include
Cold, flu, or sinus infections
Animal dander (the skin or fur of animals)
Smoke or dust from wood
Perfume or other chemical fumes
If you think you are having an asthma attack, contact your doctor immediately, and take your medicine. If you do not treat your asthma, a flare-up could continue for several days or weeks. If a flare-up does last this long, you will experience the symptoms of asthma on and off to varying degrees of unpleasantness and possibly life-threatening danger.
Measuring the Severity of an Attack
An asthma attack may happen suddenly without any warning symptoms. Its severity and duration vary from person to person. Exposure to triggers and allergens can worsen how badly you feel the symptoms.
You and your doctor can measure the severity of your asthma attack by measuring the airflow out of your lungs by using a device known as a peak flow meter. A peak flow meter measures how strongly you exhale. The higher your score, or peak expiratory flow rate (PEFR), the fewer asthma symptoms you are experiencing.
Your best possible PEFR is the highest score you get when you are not experiencing any signs of asthma over a period of two weeks. Knowing your personal best score can help you and your doctor gauge how severe an asthma attack is by comparing the two scores.
During a mild flare-up, the rate you exhale into a peak flow meter will be about 80 percent of your personal best. You might feel breathless while exercising or exerting yourself physically, but otherwise you feel good at rest or sitting. You should have no trouble breathing while talking, although sometimes you might hear a faint wheezing sound while exhaling.
During a moderate flare-up, your PEFR value will be between 50 to 80 percent of your personal best. You will experience shortness of breath while talking or walking; sitting quietly should still feel good. You might hear loud wheezing while exhaling and find that you need medicine immediately to avoid worsening of symptoms.
When your PEFR dips below 50 percent, you are experiencing a severe flare-up. Breathing is extremely difficult for you, regardless of whether you are sitting quietly or sprinting. You can only speak a few words before shortness of breath causes you to pause. Medicines do not help. These attacks may be life-threatening, and you need to get medical help immediately.
If you suffer from frequent flare-ups, consult your doctor about the precautions and preparations you can take for future flare-ups.
He can prescribe a quick-relief inhaler that will open your bronchial tubes. Ask your doctor how much medicine you should load into your inhaler.
Once you have taken your medicine, which will work to open your lungs, use a peak flow meter to measure the severity of the flare-up. If the PEFR value is below 50 percent, call your doctor immediately or go to the emergency room. You are having a severe asthma attack that requires immediate medical attention.
You should also inform people around you about how they can help you if an asthma attack leaves you helpless to speak or unable to activate your own inhaler. Ask your doctor for something called an “Asthma Action Plan,” which is a written outline of what you and others should to do in the case of a mild, moderate, or severe asthma flare-up. You might find yourself relying on others to talk to your doctor, call an ambulance, or prepare your inhaler in the case of an asthma attack. Give them an action plan like this so they can react accordingly.
Preventing a Flare-up
You can prevent a flare-up from getting worse by following these steps:
Always carry your inhaler with you, and never skip a scheduled dose of medicine even if you are feeling alright. If you use a spacer ‚Äì an extra device you can add to your inhaler to help you breathe in a greater amount of medicine ‚Äì keep that with you too. If you think you need a spacer, ask your doctor for a prescription for this device.
Avoid allergens or triggers that start your flare-ups.
Avoid inhaling second-hand cigarette smoke, which can aggravate your already vulnerable lungs.
Adopt an asthma action plan, and share it with your family and friends.
By knowing the symptoms you are likely to suffer during an asthma attack and taking treatment steps right away, you can control your asthma.
During an asthma attack, stay calm. Remove all possible triggers from your environment that could be aggravating your attack; this may require that you move from your current environment.
The best way to control your asthma is to have an action plan in place so you can react quickly in an emergency. Follow your action plan, and seek help from those around you who can help bring you your medicine, or speak to your doctor if you are not too short of breath to do so.