For many sufferers, an acute asthma attack begins with a cough and wheezing (shortness of breath). Shortness of breath is followed by shortness of breath. The expression can be very different. The question now arises to what extent an asthma attack has negative consequences for the body and how this disease is caused.
In this article you will find out everything you need to know about this disease in order to recognize and act on an asthma attack in good time. We will also tell you how you should behave. So we are giving you numerous tips and options for action to learn how to deal with such an illness and how to deal with it.
the essentials in brief
- Asthma is a very common condition caused by chronic inflammation of the lower airways.
- People who suffer from chronic lower airway inflammation often also suffer from chronic upper airway disease.
- The scientific understanding of asthma is constantly improving and is therefore important for physicians who treat this disease of both the upper and lower respiratory tract and are familiar with the definition of asthma and pathophysiology.
Definition: What is an asthma attack?
The term asthma comes from the Greek and means anxiety. This disease is a long-lasting (chronic) and at the same time paroxysmal inflammatory disease of the airways. In asthma, the bronchi are hypersensitive and are connected to a wide variety of stimuli (so-called hyperreactivity).
The most typical symptoms of asthma are on the one hand: coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, shortness of breath and a feeling of tightness in the chest. These asthmatic symptoms often occur in those affected in the early morning hours and at night.
A characteristic of asthma is that the problems usually go away, either on their own or after taking certain medications. In asthmatics, the stages of the disease and periods can be different.
The person concerned can be symptom-free for a certain period of time and be affected by this disease again after a certain period of time. In this disease, a distinction is made between mixed asthma (non-allergic asthma: intrinsic asthma) and allergic asthma. (1)
Background: What you should know about an asthma attack
Before we share with you the best solutions to an asthma attack, it is very important that you get an idea of what this disease is like. We have worked out the most important questions for you and answered them in detail to clear up your last doubts.
How is an asthma attack manifested?
Here is how an asthma attack manifests itself in those affected:
- acute shortness of breath
- restlessness and fear
- difficult breathing
- tightness in the chest
- whistling noises when breathing (especially exhaling) (2)
What triggers an asthma attack?
There are many substances that can trigger an asthma attack. If you already have an allergy, this can lead to breathing difficulties and coughing. Occupational asthma can develop in people who come into contact with fish products, animals, building materials, flour, chemicals and certain gases at work.
Small particles of substances enter the lungs through inhalation or through the blood. These substances irritate and swell the mucous membranes in the airways. The bronchi retract through the irritated mucous membranes. This in turn leads to problems with exhalation (difficult exhalation) and causes coughing.
The triggers of an asthma attack are very diverse. A triggered stimulus could be lower and upper respiratory tract infections. Physical exertion and mental stress can also cause asthma. (Image Source: Brittany Colette / Unsplash)
There does not always have to be a connection between an asthma attack and an allergy . Persons who do not suffer from an allergy can react to stimulus-resolving factors such as tobacco smoke, cold air, strong perfume odors etc. with asthmatic signs. Often these asthmatic problems are caused by respiratory infections.
Some of you have difficulty breathing after physical activity. This type of asthma is also known as exercise-induced asthma. There are patients who either have an asthma attack due to several factors and there are those who are triggered by certain substances. Despite the same conditions or factors, people can react very differently.
Medications can lead to an asthma attack. Blood-thinning and pain-relieving (acetylsalicylic acid) medication in particular lead to severe asthma attacks in those affected. Beta blockers (heart medicines) can either aggravate or resolve existing asthma.
Strong emotional stress can also lead to shortness of breath and coughing in those affected. Over time, many people recognize the factors that lead to symptoms and can specifically avoid them.
What happens to the body and lungs during an asthma attack?
If the asthmatic suffers from muscle spasms in the airways and the bronchial mucous membranes are constricted, the affected person finds it very difficult to exhale. The person has to use a lot of force to breathe normally. The worse you breathe out the air, the more difficult it is to breathe in new, oxygen-rich air.
The result: the person experiences acute shortness of breath (fear of suffocation) and shortness of breath. The asthmatic can counteract this disease through certain medications and breathing exercises. You will learn more about this in the next section.
How long does an asthma attack last?
The severity and, above all, the duration of an asthma attack can vary greatly. Such an attack can last from a few minutes to a few hours. A very severe asthma attack is an acute medical emergency that requires urgent medical attention (hospital). For most asthmatics, it rarely gets that far. (3)
How is asthma diagnosed?
Doctors perform a lung function test on the patient to check the performance of the lungs. In the case of asthmatics, it is particularly important to measure the extent to which the inhaled air can flow unhindered and freely through the bronchi, or to what extent constricted bronchi minimize the respiratory flow. Spirometry or peak flow measurement is sufficient for this test. (4)
- Spirometry : This method of testing measures the speed of air flow during inhalation (volume) as well as exhalation. The patient breathes heavily through a mouthpiece of a measuring device (spirometer). The spirometer measures the amount of air and exhaled air in seconds (one-second capacity FEV1). This measurement can be carried out by any general practitioner.
- Peak flow measurement : Anyone can carry out this type of measurement or examination at home. The peak flow measuring device is a small and at the same time handy device in which the person has to blow very hard. The small device measures the air flow (velocity) of the exhaled air. The values give the patient an overview of the extent to which the bronchi are narrowed.
Asthma Attack: The Best Rules & Methods for an Asthma Attack
In this section, we give you all the tips and tricks on how to act against an asthma attack for your relatives and for people who are standing in the event of an asthma attack. The following section lists helpful tips for you that you can try out as needed. Despite the recommendations, you should not go without a doctor's visit.
Rules of conduct for those affected by an asthma attack
These rules of conduct can help you during an asthma attack:
- You should keep calm first! Unfortunately, panic and fear lead to prolonged shortness of breath, which can lead to a dangerous lack of oxygen. In this situation, you should relax. Autogenic training can be very helpful here.
- You should assume a certain posture during an asthma attack. Everyone has a very individual technique that can make breathing easier for you (goalkeeper position, coach seat, riding seat).
- The breathing technique you have already learned (pursed lip) should effectively make it easier for you to breathe in and out despite your shortness of breath. You should use this breathing technique as a support. (5)
- If you are suffering from an allergic asthma attack, you should remove yourself from the allergy-causing factors as quickly as possible.
- If these means or methods do not help and lead to improvement, you should switch to your medication (emergency plan). You should be aware and take the right medication. To avoid mixing up medication, you should color-code them.
- If it gets worse and this advice doesn't help, you should seek medical advice and, depending on the situation, call your city's emergency services.
rules of conduct for outsiders
In a severe asthma attack, patients experience severe coughing and shortness of breath. The chest feels tense and tight. Speaking becomes more difficult. An asthma attack can develop over several hours, days, or even minutes. Help should be given quickly.
The symptoms of an asthmatic are blue discoloration of the lips and fingernails, shallow breathing and the inability to speak properly. In the event of an acute asthma attack, the bystander should call an ambulance.
The goalie position is, among many others, a breathing technique for asthma attacks. The legs should be slightly spread in the goalie position. (Image source: Alvaro Mendoza / Unsplash)
The companion should ask the asthmatic about emergency medication and help them take it. In the event of an asthma attack, both should remain calm. Unrest worsens the situation of those affected.
You should help the asthmatic to adopt the correct posture (e.g. driver's seat, goalkeeper position). In the coach seat, the hands are placed on the knees while seated and the upper body should be bent slightly forward. Many asthmatics have their own posture and breathing techniques.
Rules of conduct for those affected with & without medication
As mentioned above, there are numerous postures and breathing techniques that can work against an asthma attack. If the asthmatic has his emergency medication with him, he should take it quickly. It is very important that everyone, the asthmatic himself and those around him, remain calm. The techniques should improve the situation. If this is not the case, he or his relatives should urgently inform an emergency doctor.
There are countless ways to counteract an asthma attack. Almost every asthmatic has or should have their own emergency plan. Symptoms can also vary greatly from person to person. The methods to improve the seizure should be used by the affected person. It is particularly important to remain calm.
People who are standing should also remain calm so as not to worsen the situation of the person concerned. If the situation deteriorates significantly, an emergency doctor should be informed urgently. The emergency medication should always be nearby and marked in color if necessary (risk of confusion with other medications).
- Mim's JW. Asthma: definitions and pathophysiology. Int Forum Allergy Rhinol. 2015 Sep;5 Suppl 1:S2-6. doi: 10.1002/alr.21609. PMID: 26335832. Source
- Krishnan JA, Lemanske RF Jr, Canino GJ et al. Asthma Results: Symptoms. J Allergy Clin Immunol . 2012;129(3 Suppl):S124-S135. doi:10.1016/j.jaci.2011.12.981 Source
- Martyn M, Weaver AL, Jacobson RM, Juhn YJ. Characterization of the duration from onset of asthma symptoms to asthma disease. Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol. 2008 Jun;100(6):589-95. doi: 10.1016/S1081-1206(10)60059-2. PMID: 18592824. Source
- Drake SM, Simpson A, Fowler SJ. Asthma Diagnosis: The Changing Face of Guidelines. Pulm Ther. 2019;5(2):103-115. doi:10.1007/s41030-019-0093-y Source
- Cooper S, Oborne J, Newton S, Harrison V, Thompson Coon J, Lewis S, Tattersfield A. Effect of two breathing exercises (Buteyko and pranayama) in asthma: a randomized controlled trial. Thorax. 2003 Aug;58(8):674-9. doi: 10.1136/thorax.58.8.674. PMID: 12885982; PMCID: PMC1746772. Source