Anyone with asthma should be prepared for an emergency. Even if you've kept your asthma under control for years, it could still get worse without you realizing it. Knowing the symptoms of an asthma emergency, how to monitor your asthma, and when to seek asthma emergency treatment could save your life.
Symptoms of an Asthma Attack
The symptoms of an asthma attack include
- Tightness in the chest
The intensity of these symptoms varies depending on the severity of the asthma attack. For instance, in a mild attack, you might feel breathless when walking, but OK once you sit down. During a severe asthma attack, the symptoms may be uncontrollable and much more dangerous. They require asthma emergency treatment.
Symptoms of an Asthma Emergency
These are symptoms of an asthma attack that requires emergency treatment:
- Feeling out of breath, even when you're not moving
- Trouble walking, talking, or doing normal activities
- Not feeling better after using your rescue inhaler
- Peak flow readings of less than 50% of your personal best
- Bluish lips and fingernails
- Exhaustion or confusion
- The skin around your ribs looking "sucked in" (especially in children)
If you have allergies -- whether or not you have asthma -- you are at risk for anaphylaxis or anaphylactic shock. This is the most dangerous type of allergic response, during which your entire body reacts to the allergen. The airways can swell shut, making breathing impossible. Untreated, anaphylactic shock can be deadly. If you have asthma, it requires asthma emergency treatment.
Symptoms of anaphylaxis include:
- Swelling, especially of the throat
- Wheezing, trouble breathing, and tightness in the chest
- Trouble swallowing
- Vomiting, diarrhea, and cramping
- Pale or red face
If you think you might be having an anaphylactic reaction, call 911 or get emergency help right away. If your doctor has prescribed epinephrine (or an antihistamine) for anaphylactic emergencies, carry two doses with you at all times and use it as directed. Do not hesitate to use the epinephrine auto-injector at the first sign of a reaction, even if you are not sure it is allergy related. The medicine will not hurt you and could save your life. Call 911 even if you use the injector.
Asthma and Peak Flow Meters
Learning how to monitor your asthma will help you know when to seek asthma emergency treatment. Taking regular peak flow meter readings is often the foundation of good asthma control. You can do this at home. A peak flow meter is a simple handheld device. By breathing into it, you get a reading of your lung function.
When you are first diagnosed with asthma, your doctor will probably tell you to take peak flow meter readings every day for two to three weeks. The highest number you record is called your "personal best."
Many asthma action plans are based on peak flow readings. Depending on your readings, you will take a different course of action.
Emergencies and Your Asthma Action Plan
You and your doctor need to create an asthma action plan that details what to do when you are in different zones -- green, yellow, or red:
- Green zone: You are free of symptoms and can do your usual activities. Peak flow readings are 80% to 100% of your personal best. You're doing well. If you use daily control medicine, you should take it as usual.
- Yellow zone: You have symptoms of asthma. Or your peak flow readings are between 50% and 80% of your personal best. Your asthma is worsening. You may need medicine to prevent a more serious asthma attack.
- Red zone: You have symptoms of an asthma emergency. Peak flow readings are 50% or lower of your personal best. You are having a severe attack and need asthma emergency treatment.
Most important, your written asthma action plan spells out what you should do in an asthma emergency.
Since every person's asthma is different, you need to have a custom-tailored asthma emergency treatment plan.
Your plan might include the following steps:
- Use your emergency inhaler as prescribed.
- Take a peak flow reading if you can.
- Get to an emergency room or call 911.
Don't delay. Waiting too long to get asthma emergency treatment can be deadly.
An asthma action plan should also include:
- Your name
- The name and number of your family doctor
- The name and number of your local hospital
- Your personal best peak flow meter reading
- A list of your asthma triggers
- A list of asthma symptoms
- The names and doses of your medications
Make sure you always know where your asthma action plan is. Your family -- and maybe even roommates and close friends -- should know where to find it too. It will tell them what to do in case you ever need asthma emergency treatment and can't help yourself.
Remember to keep your asthma action plan up-to-date. Your medicines, your doctor, and your personal triggers are likely to change over time. So look over your action plan once in a while to make sure it's still accurate.