Skip to content

Asthma Health Center

Select An Article
Font Size

Asthma Attack

What Is an Asthma Attack?

An asthma attack is a sudden worsening of asthma symptoms caused by the tightening of muscles around your airways (bronchospasm). During the asthma attack, the lining of the airways also becomes swollen or inflamed and thicker mucus -- more than normal -- is produced. All of these factors -- bronchospasm, inflammation, and mucus production -- cause symptoms of an asthma attack such as difficulty breathing, wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath, and difficulty performing normal daily activities. Other symptoms of an asthma attack may include:

  • Severe wheezing when breathing both in and out
  • Coughing that won't stop
  • Very rapid breathing
  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Tightened neck and chest muscles, called retractions
  • Difficulty talking
  • Feelings of anxiety or panic
  • Pale, sweaty face
  • Blue lips or fingernails
  • Or worsening symptoms despite use of your medications

Call 911 if you have any of these symptoms.

Recommended Related to Asthma

Asthma in Children and Infants

Not all children have the same asthma symptoms, and these symptoms can vary from episode to episode in the same child. Possible signs and symptoms of asthma in children include: Frequent coughing spells, which may occur during play, at night, or while laughing or crying A chronic cough (which may be the only symptom) Less energy during play Rapid breathing (intermittently) Complaint of chest tightness or chest "hurting" Whistling sound when breathing in or out -- called wheezing...

Read the Asthma in Children and Infants article > >

Some people with asthma may go for extended periods without having an asthma attack or other symptoms, interrupted by periodic worsening of their symptoms, due to exposure to asthma triggers or perhaps from overdoing it as in exercise-induced asthma.

Mild asthma attacks are generally more common. Usually, the airways open up within a few minutes to a few hours after treatment. Severe asthma attacks are less common but last longer and require immediate medical help. It is important to recognize and treat even mild symptoms of an asthma attack to help you prevent severe episodes and keep asthma under control.

 

What Happens if an Asthma Attack Goes Untreated?

Without immediate asthma medicine and asthma treatment, your breathing will become more labored, and wheezing may get louder. If you use a peak flow meter during an asthma attack, your reading will probably be less than your personal best.

As your lungs continue to tighten during the asthma attack, you will be unable to use the peak flow meter at all. Gradually, your lungs will tighten so much during the asthma attack that there is not enough air movement to produce wheezing. This is sometimes called the "silent chest," and it is a dangerous sign. You may need to be taken to a hospital immediately with a severe asthma attack. Unfortunately, some people interpret the disappearance of wheezing during the asthma attack as a sign of improvement and fail to get prompt emergency care.

If you do not receive adequate treatment for an asthma attack, you will eventually be unable to speak and will develop a bluish coloring around your lips. This color change, known as "cyanosis," means you have less and less oxygen in your blood. Without immediate aggressive treatment in an emergency room or intensive care unit, you may lose consciousness and eventually die.

 

How Do I Recognize the Early Signs of an Asthma Attack?

Early warning signs are changes that happen just before or at the very beginning of an asthma attack. These changes start before the well-known symptoms of asthma and are the earliest signs that your asthma is worsening.

Next Article:

When Is Your Asthma Worse?

When Is Your Asthma Worse?

Take the WebMD Asthma assessment to get Personalized Action Plan

Start Now

Today on WebMD

Lung and bronchial tube graphic
5 common triggers.
group jogging in park
Should you avoid fitness activities?
 
asthma inhaler
Learn about your options.
man feeling faint
What’s the difference?
 
Los Angeles skyline in smog
Slideshow
man in a field with allergies
Slideshow
 
Woman holding inhaler
VIDEO
Slideshow Allergy Myths and Facts
Slideshow
 

Pollen counts, treatment tips, and more.

It's nothing to sneeze at.

Loading ...

Sending your email...

This feature is temporarily unavailable. Please try again later.

Thanks!

Now check your email account on your mobile phone to download your new app.

Man outdoors coughing
Article
Lung and bronchial tube graphic
Article
 
10 Worst Asthma Cities
Slideshow
runner
Article