By Susha Cheriyedath, MSc
Asthma is a condition that affects the bronchial tubes or the airways. In normal breathing, air travels through the nose or mouth to the windpipe or trachea and from there to the airways and lungs, and then finally back.
In people with asthma, breathing is not always that easy, as they have inflamed airways which produce thick mucus. Inflamed airways are highly sensitive to smoke, dust and other allergens, which can cause muscles around the airways to tighten up, further narrowing the airways and making breathing harder.
When an asthma flare-up or an asthma attack happens, people often find it very hard to breathe in and breathe out. An asthma attack can last for a few minutes to several hours, if not attended to promptly. Between attacks, breathing can be totally normal in asthma patients, though some may have shortness of breath or a cough.
Early Warning Signs
There are some early warning signs of an asthma attack which help prepare for or prevent an upcoming episode of asthma. These signs include:
- Itchy nose
- Night-time coughing
- Abnormal breathing
- Frequent shortness of breath
- Runny nose
Some people also experience scratchy or sore throat and itchy or watery eyes. A drop in the peak flow number can also mean that asthma is getting worse. If you notice any of these symptoms, refer back to your asthma action plan and take appropriate measures before the actual warning signs of an asthma attack occur.
Although the warning signs of an asthma flare-up can vary in different people, there are some basic warning signs that people can look out for. They include the following steps:
- Breathing becomes harder and slightly faster than normal breathing.
- Gradually, breathing difficulty makes it difficult to speak a complete sentence without pauses.
- Slowly, wheezing and a cough develops, followed by a feeling of chest tightness, which becomes severe as time passes.
- Rapid increase in pulse occurs next, followed by profuse sweating.
Emergency asthma signs indicate that the attack is severe and needs immediate medical intervention.
They include the following:
- Breathing becomes so difficult that it interferes with normal talking and walking
- Hunching over and gasping for breath
- Fingers and lips begin to turn blue due to oxygen deprivation
- Disorientation and less responsive than usual
These signs indicate a serious medical emergency and should not be overlooked. If you or your child experience any of these symptoms, call your emergency medical service provider immediately.
Management of an Asthma Attack
Mild asthma attacks are common among asthma patients. In such cases, the airways open up in a few minutes post treatment and the patient just needs to rest and relax. However, recognition of these symptoms is crucial in order to prevent severe asthma episodes and to control asthma effectively.
Severe asthma attacks usually last longer and need immediate medical attention. This is where the asthma action plan outlined by your doctor is helpful in managing astham. Look out for the steps to be followed for the kind of symptoms experienced.
In the case lf a drop in your peak flow number, the patient should refer to their action plan and adjust medication based on the plan outlined. If it is not clear, they should talk to thier physician right away. Whenever there are any of the signs or symptoms of worsening asthma, the plan should be followed carefully as it can be a life-saver.
Reviewed by Yolanda Smith BPharm
Last Updated: Jun 8, 2016