Signs and symptoms of an asthma attack

For most people asthma is a mild irritation that can be managed with medication, but for others symptoms can be serious and sudden.

Bupa’s National Medical Director Dr Rob Grenfell explains what happens when someone has an asthma attack, and what to do in an emergency.

What is an asthma attack?

Dr Grenfell says an asthma attack is a catastrophic asthma event caused by exposure to certain triggers,  which vary from person to person.

“The airways that carry the air in and out of your lungs narrow and that narrowing makes it really hard to get the air out,” says Dr Grenfell.
“Getting the air out becomes harder and harder and the muscles of your chest get tired, your body also becomes tired and getting the air out becomes much more of an effort,” says Dr Grenfell. “That means the ability to get oxygen into your bloodstream is impaired and you certainly become more and more unwell.”

Asthma attacks can come on slowly, over a matter of hours or even days. They can also come on very suddenly.

“It’s important for those who suffer from increasing or severe obstruction of their breathing to know what to do, and people around them should do.”
Anyone with severe asthma should have a formal asthma action plan in place which details when to call an ambulance. Questions likes these and to see the doctor urgently are things you need to discuss with your GP.

What are the signs of an asthma attack?

Dr Grenfell says the classic asthma attack is when someone with asthma inhales cold air while they’re exercising. 

“All of a sudden the person has serious trouble with their breathing, that’s something that we’ve seen,” says Dr Grenfell.

But asthma attacks can also be caused by a lung infection that doesn’t clear, pets, pollens, mould, dust, cigarette smoke, reflux or another trigger.

“The basic common theme is increasing difficulty breathing, that’s what you’ll notice,” says Dr Grenfell.
man coughing

Treating an asthma attack

According to Dr Grenfell asthma has a wide spectrum, which means everyone reacts differently.

“It really is so individual as to how rapid or how serious the symptoms get,” he says.
It’s important those prone to asthma attacks have an asthma action plan, developed with their GP. This written plan details exactly how a person can manage their asthma to prevent and treat asthma attacks. 
“For those people who have sudden onset attacks, which escalate even through they’re trying to use their inhalers, they need an ambulance, and the ambulance can save their life and get them to hospital as soon as possible.”
In the event of an asthma emergency, Asthma Australia recommends sitting the person down and keeping them calm. Give them four, separate puffs of a reliever puffer through a spacer, wait four minutes and if they haven’t improved try again. If there is still no improvement, it’s advised to call an ambulance and continue the treatment until paramedics arrive.

Preventing an asthma attack

It’s recommended those with serious asthma take preventer medication daily to avoid flare ups.

“Anyone with a lung infection needs to increase their preventer, and if necessary take a course of steroids,” says Dr Grenfell.
Dr Grenfell says it’s imperative those living with asthma take control of their condition and speak to their GP, or an asthma nurse about how best to manage their asthma.
“If you don’t know - ask. If you’re not getting answers, find someone who can give you the answers.”
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