Catawba Valley Healthcare is an independent, comprehensive, non-profit healthcare organization that offers a wide range of whole-person healthcare and services that integrate physical and mental health.

Asthma Attacks

Asthma (also known as an asthma exacerbation) is a condition in which your airways swell, narrow, and produce extra mucus. With the muscles around your airways tightening, your breathing (bronchial) tubes narrow, and you might start to cough, wheeze, and have trouble breathing. 

An asthma attack is the sudden onset of symptoms, including:

  • Severe shortness of breath, chest pain or tightness, coughing or wheezing
  • Low peak expiratory flow (PEF) readings on a peak flow meter
  • Symptoms that do not respond to the use of a quick-acting (rescue) inhaler

Signs and symptoms of an asthma attack vary from one person to the next. Work with your healthcare provider to better understand your particular signs and what to do when an attack occurs.

For example, if your asthma symptoms do not improve, or even get worse after you have taken medication, used an inhaler, or have taken other usual measures, you may be in a life-threatening situation, an asthma emergency. In this case, you need prompt attention in an emergency room.

Your provider can help you learn to recognize symptoms that can result in an asthma emergency. Talk to your provider about your asthma treatment plan. Make sure you have the equipment and knowledge you need to react appropriately to different levels of asthma attacks. 

asthma attack

Asthma Triggers

An overly sensitive immune system makes your airways (bronchial tubes) inflamed and swollen when exposed to specific triggers. Asthma triggers vary from person to person. Common asthma attack triggers include:

  • Pollen, pets, mold, and dust mites
  • Upper respiratory infections
  • Tobacco smoke
  • Inhaling cold, dry air
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Stress

For many people, asthma symptoms worsen with respiratory infections, such as those caused by the common cold. Sometimes people have asthma flare-ups caused by something in their work environment. Sometimes, there is not any obvious cause for an asthma attack.

When your asthma symptoms flare up, follow your asthma plan instructions for using your quick-acting (rescue) inhaler. Check-in periodically with your primary care provider to see if you need to make any changes to your plan. Asthma can change over time, so you will need periodic adjustments to your treatment plan to keep your daily symptoms under control. If your asthma is not well-controlled, you are more likely to have more asthma attacks and ongoing lung inflammation.

When to seek emergency medical treatment

Seek medical attention right away if you have signs or symptoms of a severe asthma attack, which include:

  • Severe breathlessness or wheezing, especially at night or in the early morning
  • The inability to speak more than short phrases due to shortness of breath
  • Having to strain your chest muscles to breathe
  • Low peak flow readings when you use a peak flow meter
  • No improvement after using a quick-acting (rescue) inhaler

Risk factors for serious asthma attacks

Anyone who has asthma is at risk of a serious asthma attack, but you might have increased risk if:

  • You had a severe asthma attack in the past
  • You have previously been admitted to the emergency room for asthma
  • You use more than two quick-acting (rescue) inhalers a month
  • Your asthma attacks tend to strike before you notice symptoms have worsened
  • You have other chronic health conditions, such as sinusitis or nasal polyps, or cardiovascular or chronic lung disease

When to see your primary care provider for an acute, but not-life threatening, asthma concern

Call our clinic if you are following your asthma action plan but are experiencing worrisome symptoms, having frequent or bothersome symptoms, or having low peak flow readings despite your best efforts. These are signs your asthma is not well controlled, and you probably need to change your treatment.

If your asthma symptoms flare up when you have a cold or the flu, take steps to prevent an asthma attack by watching your lung function and symptoms and adjusting your treatment plan as instructed by your provider. Be sure to reduce exposure to your allergy triggers, and wear a face mask when exercising in cold weather.

At Catawba Valley Health care, we will provide you with the individualized and careful attention you deserve so you know how to address acute asthma issues and how to manage your condition to the best of your ability for optimal health. Call our clinic with any questions or worrisome symptoms at (828) 695-5900.