Asthma Attack Symptoms
An asthma attack is all the usual symptoms of asthma but intensified. Asthma attack symptoms may include:
- Difficulty breathing, often rapidly
- Severe wheezing when breathing in and out
- Coughing that won’t stop
- Difficulty performing daily activities
- Chest tightness
- Tight chest muscles – this is called chest retractions
- Difficulty speaking
- Symptoms that worsen, despite the use of rescue medications
Asthma Attack Treatment: What to Do During an Asthma Attack
The best way to treat an asthma attack is by acting quickly.
If you have asthma, you should have an asthma action plan in place. An asthma action plan is created with the help of your physician, and it guides you with the proper steps to take an emergency.
In an ideal situation, you’d have a quick-acting inhaler at your disposal. This type of inhaler is also called a rescue inhaler. An example of this type of inhaler is albuterol (ProAir HFA, Proventil HFA, Ventolin HFA). At the onset of an asthma attack, you’d likely be asked by your physician to take anywhere from two to six puffs of this inhaler. Generally, this dosage can be repeated in 20 minutes.
For severe symptoms – such as your shortness of breath is extreme, or you are unable to speak – the step above should be taken, but you must consider the fact that you may need to see your physician, go to an urgent care clinic, or even go to the emergency department, depending on the severity of your symptoms.
Once you begin to feel better, your physician may ask you to continue using the rescue inhaler every four hours for several days. This inhaler may reduce inflammation that is continuing in the lungs due to the exacerbation. Your physician may even prescribe an oral medication called a corticosteroid.
For asthma that progresses, as we previously discussed, an emergency can occur. If you must seek emergency treatment, here are some things that may occur:
- You may be given a short-acting inhaler. This could be in the same form as the inhaler that you use at home. However, you may also receive through a nebulizer, which helps the medication get deep into the lungs.
- An oral medication may be prescribed. This would likely be a corticosteroid such as prednisone, which helps to reduce inflammation. In the emergency setting, corticosteroids can also be given intravenously. If symptoms are very acute, an intravenous dose may be administered.
- A medication called ipratropium (Atrovent) may be prescribed. Atrovent is a bronchodilator that is used in severe cases, often when albuterol is ineffective. It may also be used in conjunction with albuterol.
- For very severe cases, intubation may be required. Intubation requires placing a tube into the airway, which allows a machine to assist with breathing. This is done when an asthma attack becomes life-threatening. A patient can be extubated once the inflammation has improved.
What to Do for an Asthma Attack Without an Inhaler
Someone with asthma should always carry a rescue inhaler. It should be used at the initial sign of an asthma attack. But what can be done to survive an asthma attack without an inhaler?
Here are some tips that may help reduce your asthma attack severity:
- Drink caffeine. A hot, caffeinated beverage, such as tea or coffee, is believed to act like the asthma medication theophylline. Theophylline acts by opening the airways. These caffeinated beverages may open the airways for up to four hours.
- Use essential oils. Eucalyptus oil has been used for centuries to treat a myriad of conditions – one of which is asthma. This oil helps by when diffused in the air. Other oils that are believed to be beneficial are lavender and basil.
- Mustard oil – the oil produced from mustard seeds – contains isothiocyanates. Massaging this warm oil plus salt on the chest is believed to promote the opening of airways, thus relieving asthma attacks.
- While having an asthma attack, ensure that posture is good by sitting upright. This allows for efficient breathing. It may be tempting to lie down, as this is a position of comfort – don’t do it! Find a chair that will guide your posture.
- Focus on your breathing. Likely breaths are shallow and ineffective; focus on taking slow, deep breaths. Although this may be easier said than done during an asthma attack, it prevents hyperventilation, which worsens the situation, and it also promotes calmness.
Of course, this is not the ideal situation – regularly check that your car, purse, backpack, or whatever your carry has a rescue inhaler. Follow your asthma action plan as recommended by your physician whenever possible.
The Bottom Line…
If you're still wondering what best way to treat an asthma attack, it's through prevention and identifying your asthma triggers. By practicing prevention, you will prevent asthma attacks from occurring in the first place.
However, even with the best of intentions, sometimes an asthma attack will occur. Knowing how to treat it is important – and potentially life-saving.