Asthma Attack: Causes, Symptoms Treatments, & More

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Asthma Attack | Know Your Facts

This Article is Updated on – 06/02/2024, Originally posted on – 20/01/2021


Asthma attacks, also known as asthma exacerbations, are episodes of sudden worsening of asthma symptoms caused by airway obstruction. An asthma attack occurs when the airways become inflamed and constricted, making it difficult to breathe.

Asthma attacks can range in severity from mild to life-threatening. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, more than 25 million Americans have asthma, and asthma attacks account for 1.6 million emergency department visits per year in the United States.

This comprehensive guide will provide an in-depth look at asthma attacks including the causes, symptoms, risk factors, emergency treatment options, and long-term prevention methods. We will also cover what to do when an asthma attack strikes to help you act quickly and potentially prevent a trip to the emergency room.

Understanding the warning signs and triggers of an oncoming asthma attack can empower you to gain control over your asthma. With proper treatment and management, many asthma attacks can be avoided altogether. Let’s dive in and shed some light on this widespread respiratory condition.

What is an Asthma Attack?

An asthma attack, sometimes called an asthma flare-up, occurs when the airways of the lungs suddenly become inflamed, narrow, and filled with mucus. During an attack, the muscles around the airways tighten and restrict airflow.

Asthma attacks cause symptoms like:

  • Wheezing
  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest tightness

Airway constriction and inflammation

During an asthma attack, the airways become constricted due to bronchoconstriction – the tightening of the muscle bands that surround the airways. This tightening narrows the airways and reduces the flow of air into and out of the lungs.

Inflammation also swells and narrows the airways, further blocking airflow. The airways produce excess mucus which clogs them. All of these factors make breathing difficult.

Difference between mild, moderate, and severe

Asthma attacks can vary greatly in severity.

  • Mild attacks cause minor symptoms that can be treated at home with a quick-relief inhaler. Symptoms subside within a few hours to a few days.
  • Moderate attacks cause more persistent wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath that may disrupt sleep or daily activities. Moderate attacks require quick-relief medicine and may need oral steroids.
  • Severe attacks involve extreme difficulty breathing, inability to speak full sentences, and blue lips or fingernails indicating oxygen deprivation. Severe attacks are medical emergencies requiring immediate treatment with inhaled medicines, steroids, and oxygen, and hospitalization may be necessary.

Common Causes and Triggers of Asthma Attacks

Asthma is a chronic condition that causes the airways to be extra sensitive to certain asthma triggers. Exposure to these triggers causes the airways to swell, fill with mucus, and spasm, resulting in an asthma attack.

pollen Asthma Attack
Seasonal pollen is a clear reason for asthmatic symptoms

Common causes and triggers of asthma attacks include:

Environmental Triggers

  • Air pollution
  • Cigarette smoke and vaping
  • Strong odors or sprays
  • Extreme weather changes like cold air or high humidity
  • Thunderstorms and high pollen counts
  • House dust mites

Respiratory Infections

  • Colds
  • Sinus infections
  • Flu
  • Pneumonia


  • Running and strenuous exercise can trigger asthma attacks in some people due to increased breathing rates, airway drying, and weather conditions. Using an inhaler before exercise can prevent exercise-induced asthma attacks.


  • Animal dander
  • Pollen
  • Mold
  • Dust
  • Hay fever

Stress and Emotions

  • Laughing, crying, stress and other emotions can cause hyperventilation and asthma attacks in some people.


  • Taking aspirin, NSAIDs, or certain blood pressure medications can trigger asthma symptoms in those with aspirin sensitivity.

Some people may find their asthma is triggered by just one factor, while others may have multiple triggers. Keeping an asthma diary can help identify your asthma triggers. Then steps can be taken to avoid or minimize exposure to these triggering irritants.

Asthma Attack Symptoms

Asthma Attack
There are a number of asthmatic symptoms

Recognizing the signs of an oncoming asthma attack is crucial for getting prompt treatment. Symptoms can come on quickly or gradually over several hours or days.

Common symptoms of an asthma attack include:

  • Coughing episodes, sometimes persistently
  • Audible wheezing sound when exhaling
  • Tightness or pain in the chest
  • Shortness of breath and feeling like you can’t get enough air
  • Need to take quick, shallow breaths
  • Trouble talking due to breathlessness
  • Anxiety, panic, or feeling of impending doom

Emergency symptoms that require immediate medical attention:

  • Very severe shortness of breath where you are struggling for air
  • Little to no relief from quick-relief inhaler
  • Inability to speak more than short phrases
  • Breathing so hard you are using accessory muscles in the neck, abdomen
  • Lips or nail beds turning blue or grayish, indicating oxygen deprivation

The CDC’s Asthma Action Plan has an asthma symptom monitoring chart that can help determine if your symptoms are getting progressively worse and need emergency care.

Don’t try to wait out severe asthma attack symptoms. Call 911 or go to an emergency room to get urgently needed treatment and monitoring if you experiencing signs of a life-threatening asthma attack.

Risk Factors for Severe Asthma Attacks

Smoking increases your risk of asthmatic attacks

While an asthma attack can happen to anyone with asthma, certain risk factors increase the chances of having a severe, life-threatening asthma exacerbation requiring emergency care:

Prior history of severe attacks

If you’ve had severe asthma attacks requiring hospitalization in the past, you are at higher risk of having them recur.

Poorly controlled, persistent asthma

Difficult to control asthma that causes chronic symptoms significantly raises the risks of a severe flare-up.

Over-reliance on quick-relief inhalers

Using quick-relief inhalers like albuterol more than twice a week indicates underlying asthma that is not well controlled.

Not taking control medications as prescribed

Missing doses of long-term control inhalers like inhaled corticosteroids raises the risk of asthma attacks.


Excess weight stresses the cardiovascular system including the lungs. Obesity increases inflammation which can worsen asthma.


Smoking damages the lungs and causes worse asthma control. Secondhand smoke is also a trigger.


Uncontrolled allergies to dust, pets, pollen, mold, and other triggers make asthma attacks more likely.

Having a written asthma action plan appropriate for your severity level can help you recognize and treat worsening asthma in time to prevent a severe attack.

Emergency Treatment for Severe Asthma Attacks

With asthma emergency treatments are a key needs

When asthma attack symptoms become severe and you are having trouble breathing, this is a medical emergency requiring immediate medical treatment.

Call 911 or go to the emergency room if you experience:

  • No improvement 5-15 minutes after taking quick-relief medication
  • Cannot speak more than short words due to shortness of breath
  • Lips or fingernails are turning blue
  • Peak flow meter reading is less than 50% of your personal best
  • You need to hunch over to breathe easier

Emergency medical care options include:

  • Oxygen to relieve hypoxia and improve breathing
  • Inhaled bronchodilators like albuterol frequently to open airways quickly
  • Systemic corticosteroids like prednisone to reduce airway inflammation
  • IV magnesium sulfate to relax airway muscles
  • Epinephrine if anaphylaxis is causing the attack
  • Monitoring of oxygen saturation, peak flow values, and other vital signs
  • Hospitalization for close monitoring and treatment if the attack does not respond to initial medications

Seeking emergency medical care quickly can halt the asthma attack, restore normal breathing, and prevent a life-threatening outcome.

Long-Term Asthma Attack Prevention

asthma attack
Long-term treatments keep you safe and happy

While dealing with an acute asthma attack requires emergency care, many long-term asthma management strategies can help prevent attacks from occurring in the first place.

Long-term methods to help prevent asthma attacks include:

  • Take control medications daily as prescribed – Preventive, long-acting asthma control inhalers like inhaled corticosteroids reduce airway inflammation and sensitivity over time.
  • Avoid known asthma triggers – Minimize exposure to allergens, irritants, infections, and environmental factors that provoke your asthma.
  • Use an inhaler properly with a spacer – Correct inhaler technique ensures the medication reaches the airways efficiently. Using a spacer increases delivery.
  • Follow a written asthma action plan – Have a plan for monitoring symptoms and adjusting medications to keep asthma controlled. Seek medical help when symptoms persist.
  • Monitor symptoms and adjust treatment – Track symptoms, peak flow values, and medication use to identify poorly controlled asthma and adjust treatment.
  • Get yearly flu shots and stay up to date on vaccines – Preventing viral respiratory infections helps avoid an asthma attack trigger.
  • Maintain a healthy weight – Carrying excess weight can worsen asthma control. Eat healthy and stay active.
  • Improve air quality at home – Reduce dust, pet dander, mold, and smoke. Clean using HEPA air filters.
  • Avoid heartburn – Treating reflux disease can reduce asthma symptoms and attacks.

Well-controlled asthma may still occasionally flare up, but following these preventive measures can significantly reduce the frequency and severity of asthma attacks.

What To Do During an Asthma Attack

doctor meet
Stay with your doctor’s guidelines always

If you start experiencing asthma attack symptoms, take the following steps right away:

  • Stop activity and rest – Sit down and rest to conserve energy and breathe easier. Don’t lie down.
  • Take a quick-relief inhaler – Use a fast-acting inhaler like albuterol as directed. Repeat every 5-20 minutes as needed.
  • Sit upright and loosen tight clothing – Proper posture makes breathing easier.
  • Breathe slowly and calmly through pursed lips – Relaxed, slow breathing maximizes air exchange.
  • Drink water to thin mucus secretions – Stay hydrated.
  • Monitor symptoms and seek emergency care if not improving – Call 911 if symptoms persist after medicine.
  • Avoid triggers that worsen symptoms – Stop any activity, exposure, or trigger that made the attack happen.
  • Consult your doctor – Make an appointment after the attack subsides to adjust your asthma management plan.

Staying calm during an asthma attack prevents fear and anxiety from worsening breathing difficulties. Follow your asthma action plan for guidance on handling attacks based on severity and at what point to seek emergency treatment.


Asthmatic attacks can be frightening events where a person’s breathing is dangerously obstructed. Understanding the common causes, triggers, symptoms, and treatments for asthma exacerbations empowers us to manage this condition.

While severe asthma attacks require emergency care, long-term asthma control is possible through daily preventive medicine, avoiding triggers, monitoring symptoms, and following an action plan.

If you have asthma, work closely with your doctor to optimize your asthma treatment and minimize flare-ups. Having an emergency action plan in place allows you to act quickly at the first signs of an asthmatic attack.

Though ongoing research continues, currently there is no cure for asthma. However, living an active, full life is possible with proper asthma education and management.


FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

1. What’s the difference between an asthmatic attack and normal asthma symptoms?

An asthmatic attack involves a sudden, severe worsening of symptoms like wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath. Normal asthma symptoms are milder and more stable day-to-day.

2. How long does an asthmatic attack last?

Mild asthmatic attacks may resolve within a few hours to a few days. Severe attacks require immediate emergency care and hospitalization may be necessary until breathing improves, which can take 3-5 days.

3. What should I do when I feel an asthmatic attack coming on?

Stop any activity and rest. Sit upright and take your quick-relief inhaler as directed. Use any breathing techniques that help relax you. Act quickly, don’t wait to see if it passes.

4. What causes asthma to flare up suddenly?

Common triggers include respiratory infections, allergens, irritants like smoke or pollution, weather changes, stress, over-exertion, or an underlying worsening of chronic asthma control.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this review are based on the author’s personal experience and research. Individual results may vary. Always refer to the manufacturer’s guidelines and instructions for proper usage and maintenance of the product.


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