Too often movies and television make light of children with asthma, portraying them as the often nerdy characters puffing on inhalers. Asthma, however, is a serious health condition, which can be life-threatening. If anything, children and adults with asthma should be depicted as brave heroes who face peril each day because when an asthma attack strikes, it can feel like being squeezed by a giant boa constrictor, trapped beneath a pile of bricks or locked in a wooden box underwater. So, what is an asthma attack? What happens during an attack that makes the experience so uncomfortable and dangerous?
What Is an Asthma Attack?
An asthma attack is characterised by a sudden onset of asthma symptoms caused by a bronchospasm (the sudden constriction of muscles surrounding the airways). In addition to the bronchospasm, the inside lining of the airways becomes inflamed and blocked with mucous which is thicker than normal. The combination of these events causes the symptoms of an asthma attack, such as:
- difficulty breathing
- rapid breathing
- incessant coughing
- difficulty talking
- pressure and tightness in the chest
- tightened or contracted neck and chest muscles
- sweaty and/or pale face
- blue fingernails and lips
- feelings of panic and anxiety
- worsening symptoms, in spite of medication
Mild asthma attacks occur more commonly than severe attacks. Symptoms should be treated right away to prevent a more severe attack, which would require immediate medical attention.
6 Common Types of Asthma Attacks and Triggers
Different things will trigger asthma symptoms and attacks depending on the type(s) of asthma you have. Different types of asthma include:
- Allergic Asthma – Accompanied by allergic rhinitis, allergic asthma is triggered by exposure to allergens such as animal dander, animal saliva, pollen, mold, dust mites and fungi.
- Non-Allergic Asthma – Triggered by viral or bacterial infections and exposure to other irritants, such as perfumes, sprays and smoke.
- Exercise-Induced Asthma (EIA) – With EIA, symptoms of asthma occur in conjunction with exercise. The sufferer might experience constriction and have difficulty breathing ten or fifteen minutes following a brief period of physical activity or fifteen minutes into a longer period of exercise.
- Work-Related (Occupational) Asthma – Individuals with work-related asthma only experience asthma symptoms while in their places of work. Exposure to dust particles or chemicals used in the work environment usually trigger episodes of occupational asthma.
- Medication-Induced Asthma – For sensitive individuals, some over-the-counter pain medications can trigger asthma attacks. These include aspirin and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as naproxen, ibuprofen and diclofenac.
- Nocturnal (Nighttime) Asthma – Some individuals suffer from nocturnal asthma. The body’s circadian rhythm affects asthma, and the reclining position at night can also worsen post-nasal drip and acid reflux, which can both trigger attacks.
How to Manage Asthma and Prevent Attacks
You can manage your asthma and prevent attacks by avoiding triggers and adhering to your medication schedule. Depending on your specific type of asthma and your doctor’s recommended treatment plan, your medications might include daily allergy medications and/or bronchodilators, steroids and anti-inflammatory medications in the form of inhalers or nebulisers. To prevent asthma attacks and manage your asthma symptoms, it is extremely important that you carefully follow your doctor’s instructions for how to use both preventative and on-set asthma medications.