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Symptoms of an Asthma Attack

Can you recognize the symptoms of an asthma attack? Being acutely aware of asthma attack symptoms is crucial to preventing an asthma emergency.

Some asthma attack symptoms such as wheezing are easy to identify. Yet other asthma attack symptoms such as feelings of anxiety or panic are not as well known. Some people may have an itchy chin before they start to feel short of breath and cough. Still others may only have symptoms at nighttime (called nocturnal asthma). As soon as you notice your asthma attack symptoms, seek quick treatment with your asthma medication to prevent an asthma emergency.

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Understanding Asthma Attack Symptoms

An asthma attack is a sudden worsening of asthma symptoms caused by the tightening of muscles of your airways (bronchospasm). During the attack, the lining of the airways becomes swollen or inflamed and more and thicker mucus than normal is produced. All of these factors -- bronchospasm, inflammation, and mucus production -- cause asthma attack symptoms. Asthma attack symptoms include: 

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

If you have asthma, you may go for weeks to months without having any asthma attack symptoms. Then suddenly, when you least expect it, you might have asthma symptoms such as shortness of breath, coughing, and wheezing. Sometimes, allergies to seasonal pollen or weather changes can trigger asthma attack symptoms. Other times, a viral infection such as a cold or flu can trigger asthma attack symptoms. Even exercise or sudden stress can cause asthma attack symptoms. 

Preventing an Asthma Attack

The best way to prevent asthma attack symptoms is to manage your asthma daily. By following your asthma action plan and using your peak flow meter to measure breathing changes, you can treat your asthma with the proper medications before symptoms become noticeable. In doing so, you can prevent an asthma emergency and continue to live an active life. 

What Do I Do if I Have an Asthma Attack?

Without immediate asthma treatment, asthma attack symptoms can worsen and become severe. If you experience asthma attack symptoms and your symptoms do not improve with treatment, contact your doctor. If you have an asthma action plan, follow the "Red Zone" or emergency instructions immediately. You need medical attention right away.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Luqman Seidu, MD on May 18, 2014
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