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Asthma attack

What is an asthma attack?

An asthma attack describes the worsening of asthma symptoms which can be a medical emergency. This is also known by doctors as 'acute asthma exacerbation'.

Muscles around the airways tighten, called bronchospasm, and the lining of the airways becomes swollen or inflamed and there’s excess mucus.

These symptoms may build up over some days or may appear suddenly.

Asthma can usually be managed with inhaler medication for most people, but during an attack these drugs may be less effective.

In the event of early milder signs of an asthma attack, such as a drop in readings on a peak flow meter, the person should follow the guidance as detailed in their asthma action plan if appropriate to do so, or seek medical advice from their GP, asthma nurse or asthma clinic as soon as possible.

Asthma UK cautions against people not wanting to 'cause a fuss' during an asthma attack, and says help should be sought for an asthma attack at any time of day or night.

Asthma attack symptoms

In some cases, emergency hospital treatment may be needed for an asthma attack - so call 999 for an ambulance.

If someone is having a severe asthma attack, symptoms may include:

  • Wheezing
  • Coughing
  • Chest feeling tight, chest pain
  • Breathless, unable to speak
  • Faster breathing
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Drowsiness
  • Exhaustion
  • Dizziness
  • Blue lips or fingers, called cyanosis.

What to do for an asthma attack

In the event of an asthma attack, follow your asthma action plan.

For many people, Asthma UK says this will involve:

  • Sitting up straight
  • Keeping calm
  • Using the reliever inhaler every 30-60 seconds (maximum of 10 puffs)

If you have concerns, or the medication isn’t helping, call 999 for an ambulance.

What can trigger an asthma attack?

Anything that irritates a person's airways and causes a worsening of asthma symptoms is called an asthma trigger.

These vary from person to person, but include:

  • Pet allergies
  • House dust mites
  • Irritation from cleaning products, strong perfumes or smells
  • Mould spores
  • Tree and grass pollen
  • Air pollution
  • Changing weather and temperature
  • Exercise
  • Emotions
  • Women's hormone changes
  • Reaction to some medications
  • Smoking, exposure to tobacco smoke
  • Infections, colds and flu.

After an asthma attack

After an asthma attack, especially one involving hospital treatment, see your GP within 2 days of being discharged to review the attack and your asthma treatment and asthma action plan.

Follow-up hospital appointments may also be made.

Reducing the risk of an asthma attack

Asthma attacks can't always be prevented, but steps to reduce the risk include:

  • Using medications as recommended
  • Following a written asthma action plan
  • Attending regular asthma reviews with an asthma nurse or GP
  • Check inhalers are being used correctly
  • Try to avoid asthma triggers if you can
  • Be aware of asthma symptoms and any signs of them getting worse
  • Quit smoking and avoid smoky conditions
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Have an annual flu jab if recommended to do so.
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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on September 09, 2016

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