During an asthma attack, also called an asthma exacerbation, your airways become swollen and inflamed. The muscles around the airways contract and the airways also produce extra mucus, causing your breathing (bronchial) tubes to narrow.
During an 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. Your treatment plan should include what to do when your asthma starts getting worse, and how to deal with an asthma attack in progress.
Asthma attack signs and symptoms include:
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 â 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 emergency room care. Your doctor can help you learn to recognize an asthma emergency so that you'll know when to get help.
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. PEF readings ranging from 50 to 79 percent of your personal best are a sign you need to use the quick-acting (rescue) medications prescribed by 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.
Seek medical attention right away if you have signs or symptoms of a serious asthma attack, which include:
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:
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.
For adults and children over 5 years old, lung (pulmonary) function tests are used to check how well the lungs are working. Poor lung function is a sign that your asthma isn't well-controlled. In some cases, lung function tests are also used in asthma emergencies to help check the severity of an asthma attack or how well treatment is working.
Lung function tests include:
Peak flow. Your doctor may take a peak flow reading when you come in for a scheduled visit or for emergency treatment during an asthma attack. This test measures how quickly you can breathe out. You also may use a peak flow meter at home to monitor your lung function.
The results of this test are known as peak expiratory flow (PEF). A peak flow test is done by blowing into a mouthpiece as hard and as fast as you can with a single breath (expiration).
Spirometry. During spirometry, you take deep breaths and forcefully exhale into a hose connected to a machine called a spirometer. A common spirometry measurement is forced expiratory volume, which measures how much air you can breathe out in one second.
The results of this test are known as forced expiratory volume (FEV). Spirometry can also measure how much air your lungs can hold and the rate at which you can inhale and exhale.
Nitric oxide measurement. A newer diagnostic test, this exam measures the amount of nitric oxide gas you have in your breath when you exhale. High nitric oxide readings indicate inflammation of the bronchial tubes.
Exhaled nitric oxide can be measured by having a patient exhale directly into an analyzer. Exhaled air may be captured in a nitric-oxide-impervious container for measurement later.
Asthma attacks can be serious.
The best way to avoid an asthma attack is to make sure your asthma is well-controlled in the first place. This means following a written asthma plan to track symptoms and adjust your medication.
While you may not be able to eliminate your risk of an asthma attack, you're less likely to have one if your current treatment keeps your asthma under control. Take your inhaled medications as prescribed in your written asthma plan.
These preventive medications treat the airway inflammation that causes asthma signs and symptoms. Taken on a daily basis, these medications can reduce or eliminate asthma flare-ups â and your need to use a quick-acting inhaler.
See your doctor if you're following your asthma action plan but still have frequent or bothersome symptoms or low peak flow readings. These are signs your asthma isn't well-controlled, and you need to work with your doctor to change your treatment.
If your asthma symptoms flare up when you have a cold or the flu, take steps to avoid an asthma attack by watching your lung function and symptoms and adjusting your treatment as needed. Be sure to reduce exposure to your allergy triggers, and wear a face mask when exercising in cold weather.
All asthma attacks require treatment with a quick-acting (rescue) inhaler such as albuterol. One of the key steps in preventing an asthma attack is to avoid your triggers.
Anyone who has asthma is at risk of an asthma attack. You may be at increased risk of a serious asthma attack if: