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What Are the Symptoms of Asthma?

What's an Asthma Attack and How Do I Know I'm Having One?

An asthma attack involves three processes:

  • 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 
  • 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 symptoms immediately once you recognize them.

Without immediate treatment, during a severe attack, your breathing will become more labored, and wheezing will be louder. If you use a peak flow meter at this time, the reading will probably be below 50%.

As your lungs continue to tighten during a severe attack, 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. This is sometimes called the "silent chest," and it is an ominous sign. 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 treatment, 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. Your symptoms will likely progress to loss of consciousness and may even be fatal without aggressive treatment in an intensive care unit.

If you are experiencing an asthma attack, follow the "red zone" or emergency instructions in the asthma action plan immediately. An asthma attack may be life-threatening, and you may need immediate medical attention.

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WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Luqman Seidu, MD on July 08, 2012

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