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Asthma Symptoms

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Know the Symptoms of an Asthma Attack

An asthma attack is the episode in which bands of muscle surrounding the airways are triggered to tighten. This tightening is called bronchospasm. During the attack, the lining of the airways becomes swollen or inflamed and the cells lining the airways produce more and thicker mucus than normal.

All of these factors -- bronchospasm, inflammation, and mucus production -- cause symptoms such as difficulty breathing, wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath, and difficulty performing normal daily activities. Other symptoms of an asthma attack 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

The severity of an asthma attack can escalate rapidly, so it's important to treat these asthma symptoms immediately once you recognize them.

Without immediate treatment, such as with your asthma inhaler or bronchodilator, your breathing will become more labored. If you use a peak flow meter at this time, the reading will probably be less than 50%. Many asthma action plans suggestion interventions starting at 80% of normal.

As your lungs continue to tighten, you will be unable to use the peak flow meter at all. Gradually, your lungs will tighten so there is not enough air movement to produce wheezing. You need to be transported to a hospital immediately. Unfortunately, some people interpret the disappearance of wheezing as a sign of improvement and fail to get prompt emergency care.

If you do not receive adequate asthma treatment, you may 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 aggressive treatment for this asthma emergency, you will lose consciousness and eventually die.

If you are experiencing an asthma attack, follow the "Red Zone" or emergency instructions in your asthma action plan immediately. These symptoms occur in life-threatening asthma attacks. You need medical attention right away.

For more detail, see WebMD’s article Asthma Attack Symptoms.

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