What Is an Asthma Attack?

Understanding What an Asthma Attack Is

Asthma Attack

You may have asthma, but have you had an asthma attack?

Hopefully not, but for many people with asthma, asthma attacks are a normal part of life with asthma. An inevitable part of their disease state.

Regardless of whether this is “your normal,” you should know a bit more about asthma attacks so that you can detect one if it is occurring – and treat it quickly with or without an inhaler. You should also know the triggers – because maybe, just maybe, it doesn’t have to be “your normal.”

What Is an Asthma Attack?

If you are reading this, you may know what it feels like to have asthma.

That feeling of chest tightness and the wheezing.

When you have an asthma attack, your asthma symptoms are worsening – and it is happening rapidly. Those tell-tale symptoms worsen because the muscles surrounding the airways are tightening due to bronchospasm. 

In addition, inflammation of the airways occurs. This inflammation causes excess mucus to become produced.

Bronchospasm and inflammation with excess mucus are the “perfect storm” for symptoms to rapidly worsen – causing an asthma attack.

What Does an Asthma Attack Feel Like?

On a personal level, I have approximately one asthma attack each winter, when the cold exacerbates my symptoms. The best way that I can describe my attack? It is like I am breathing through a straw, sucking for air, while a large animal is sitting on my chest – and it is frightening.


On Quora, where users can ask questions of other users, one user posted the question “What does it feel like, when one is experiencing an asthma attack?” Here are snippets of a few of the responses, that I believe, describe what it’s like to have an asthma attack:

  • “It’s bizarre. You can’t get enough air into your lungs. You try to breathe deeply, but it’s not really helping. It’s almost like you’re slowly suffocating like your lungs just can’t keep up with the oxygen demands of your body. You might start to get light headed. Your heart might be beating fast. You’re often wheezing too, struggling to move air past all the inflammation and mucus that’s blocking it.” – Christine Ricks
  • “You feel suffocated… you can’t breathe normally… you feel like someone is sitting on your chest or being pushed into the water.” – Pruthvi Sathish.
  • “For a non-asthmatic person, it would be like breathing in-out directly through [a] chimney.” – Lavya Gavshinde.
  • “With asthma, it feels awful. The first half of my lungs I can get air in, and it feels like breathing normal, no problem, but then the second half is the most painful, miserable, scariest stuff you will ever experience. I have to grab on something like my upper thighs to help push my torso up because for some reason I feel like that would help me breathe.” – Zoe Freddy.

Asthma Attack Triggers: What Can Trigger an Asthma Attack?

Anything can trigger asthma. Yes, you read that right. Anything can trigger an asthma attack.

What an asthma trigger is for one person may not be an asthma trigger for another. And one person may have a “strange” trigger that exacerbates their asthma symptoms, something that is not a “usual” asthma trigger, but still manages to set their immune system into “fire” mode.

That being said, there are several things that are most common in triggering asthma symptoms. When the respiratory system is exposed to these triggers, it is more likely to elicit an immune response because the immune system is sensitive; this causes inflammation and production of mucus, as we’ve previously discussed.

Common asthma triggers may include:

  • Pollens
  • Pet exposures
  • Mold
  • Dust mites
  • Upper respiratory infection
  • Tobacco smoke exposure
  • Inhalation of cold, dry air
  • Stress
  • Having a condition called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)

Next page: Learn what the symptoms of an asthma attack are, and how to treat an asthma attack with and without an inhaler.

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