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
Feelings of anxiety or panic
Pale, sweaty face
Blue lips or fingernails
Or worsening symptoms despite use of your medications
Allergic asthma is the most common type of asthma. About 90% of kids with childhood asthma have allergies, compared with about 50% of adults with asthma. Inhaling specific substances called allergens (allergy triggers such as pollen, mites, or molds) brings on the asthma symptoms associated with allergic asthma. Nearly everyone with asthma (allergic or nonallergic) gets worse after exercising in cold air or after inhaling any type of smoke, dust, fumes, and sometimes strong smells.
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.